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Musi, a new, free music streaming app, begs the question: Can anything compete with Spotify?

Spotify has rocketed to success with its use of data and recommendation features, but it’s also one of many streaming services vying for users’ attention and dollars.

Spotify app displayed on the screen of a smartphone.
Musi’s $0 price tag and integration with YouTube helps it appeal to a niche that even Spotify isn’t reaching, experts say. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

A new music streaming service –– Musi –– is turning heads with its free, silent ad-based platform that runs on audio from millions and millions of YouTube videos. 

Musi isn’t like major streamers like Spotify or Apple Music, but its entry into the streaming wars begs the question: Can anything compete with the likes of Spotify, or is the music streaming landscape set in stone?

Headshot of Andrew Mall.
Andrew Mall, an associate professor of music at Northeastern University, says Musi’s relative success speaks to reality of the streaming era: Streaming services are just too expensive for most people. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Andrew Mall, an associate professor of music at Northeastern University, says that at this point there isn’t space for another service at the scale of Spotify. In the world of music streaming, Spotify is king. With about 100 million subscribers in the U.S. and 239 million worldwide, it is the most popular music streaming app globally, easily overshadowing its closest U.S. competitor, Apple Music –– although China’s Tencent Music is another story.

“If you wanted to launch a service whose goal was to attract paid subscribers, to have hundreds of thousands or millions of songs in their catalog and to compete with Spotify or Apple, the entry cost alone would knock you out,” Mall says. “It would be almost impossible to secure funding to even try it out because any investor is going to look at your proposal and be like, ‘We already have Spotify.’”

Measured against Spotify, Musi is obviously lacking, both in terms of its smaller audience and more limited feature set. Something as simple as playlists are almost nonexistent. If you have a YouTube account, you can create playlists on YouTube and then listen to them through Musi, but playlist creation through the app itself is nonexistent. It also lacks the family sharing and community sharing features on larger music streaming platforms.

More importantly, Musi doesn’t have the robust data and algorithm-driven recommendation and discovery tools that set Spotify apart. It also is not available on Android devices, potentially for reasons related to the app’s violation of YouTube’s terms of service, Mall speculates.

However, since Musi pulls from YouTube’s entire library, users can listen to an even broader range of music, particularly live recordings, than on Spotify. And its silent, full screen ads are less intrusive than the ads that play between every few songs on Spotify’s free, ad-supported tier.

Mall says the most notable thing about Musi is that it’s not trying to be Spotify –– and that ultimately might be the key to success in a field crowded by giants.

“They see a niche that’s not being met by the existing services,” Mall says. “The niche is people who can’t or won’t pay for streaming subscriptions. YouTube is actually the most used streaming service globally –– and freely.”

Musi’s audience indicates that not only are the many, many streaming services adding up for some people, Mall says. It shows that “paid services remain out of reach for many, many people” around the world. Even Spotify recognizes this –– it has its free, ad-supported version –– and it’s part of a larger shift among streaming services that have started to offer cheaper, ad-driven experiences.

“Frankly, it’s hard to compete with free,” says David Herlihy, a teaching professor of music at Northeastern. “I don’t think [Musi is] going to cross over and take users away from people who are already subscribing to Spotify. I think it’s a niche –– but it’s a smart niche.”

Headshot of David Herlihy.
David Herlihy, a teaching professor of music at Northeastern University, says the secret to Spotify’s success is its use of algorithmically-driven recommendation tools. That’s hard for competitors to replicate. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The lack of any kind of sophisticated features on Musi might also be part of its appeal, Mall says. Spotify’s recommendation tools track user behaviors to suggest more music. Herlihy says those tools are driven by the algorithm created by The Echo Nest, a company that Spotify purchased in 2014 to run its operations in-house.

For people who are concerned about the role technology plays in their lives, Musi could provide a strong alternative to the algorithmic reality offered by most other streaming services –– if the audience is willing to give up the conveniences of modern music streaming.

“There is this larger sense that technology is maybe too present in our lives, and this is maybe a way for some users to assert a certain amount of control over that,” Mall says. “But the things that you give up are things that many music listeners really enjoy. … While there are people who are concerned about how much our apps track us, that seems to be declining as you move into younger populations.”