Friday, July 22, 2011

Spotify is Here!

Before last week, you might have heard rumors of Spotify, the music streaming service that has taken Europe by storm. For the past couple of years, Americans have had to make do with vague stories of the Promised Land - a realm beyond the ocean where you could legally stream any track...for free! For those of us stuck toiling away in the United States, it was hard not to greet these tales with a healthy dose of skepticism. Is Spotify really all that great, or is this another case of our cultural inferiority complex?

Last week saw the long awaited debut of Spotify in the United States, and now we Americans can judge for ourselves. It's currently invite-only, but it's relatively easy to garner an invite (I got one in thirty seconds after a quick Google search led me to a Spotify promotion on the Coca-Cola website). And it turns out that our European counterparts were not wrong, and Spotify has a lot of promise. If it really takes off, it could conceivably change the way we listen to music in the same way Netflix changed the way we watched movies. 


To be clear, Spotify is far from the first streaming service to try and capture the American market. Pandora is probably the most well-known one, though I don't think it's turned a profit yet. But Spotify seems to be deliberately distancing themselves from Pandora, to the point where they removed the radio function from their US release. Pandora randomly plays songs based on listener preferences, while Spotify allows the listener to queue up their own chosen playlist. 

Other streaming services in the US, such as Rhapsody and MOG, suffer from the fact that there's not a free model; both of these services require the user to subscribe and pay a monthly fee. The get the most out of Spotify, you can do this and pay for the "premium service." But Spotify, in a wise-business move, has also introduced a free, ad-supported tier. By setting the initial entrance fee at nothing, the company is hoping to win you over and convince you to start paying for the service. Spotify has also benefited from the fact that it's been unavailable in the United States for so long, because this got people talking. There's a lot of buzz surrounding the service that its competitors never got, to the point that Spotify's American release was framed as some sort of event.

Finally, there's Grooveshark, which up until this point has been my service of choice, especially for my numerous listenings for this site. LIke Spotify, Grooveshark allows one to queue up specific tracks for free. The problem is that Grooveshark is of questionable legality, and its unclear that Grooveshark pays any label that doesn't file a copyright infringement claim first.  By sealing deals with each major record label before their release, Spotify has set themselves up to be the law-abiding "good son" to Grooveshark. Hell, Spotify just looks cleaner, and has better organization; Grooveshark's library is poorly organized and makes it a chore to piece together the album you want to listen to.


Spotify offers three tiers - the "Free," the "Unlimited," and the "Premium." The site brags about all sorts of features for each tier but, put simply, the Unlimited Service costs $5 a month and gets rid of ads, while the Premium Service allows streaming on mobile devices. In the future, the Unlimited or Premium services will be the only way to listen to more music than the time limit (in Europe, 20 hours a month), but as part of their big American roll-out, Spotify currently has unlimited hours of listening on even the free tier. 

The service boasts a fairly sizable music library, but (as with any legal streaming site) it's always strange what is and is not available. The Beatles, of course, are not there. Neither are Metallica, Led Zeppelin, or AC/DC. Pink Floyd has all of The Wall, but Dark Side of the Moon is missing a track, and there's only half of Wish You Were Here. The Pretenders (my artist of the week) have their first and third albums available, but not their second. Yet other classic rock artists you would assume to be difficult to negotiate a contract with - Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan - have the bulk of their discography available. 

But Spotify's true value comes in being able to stream new music. As someone living in a city where the radio stations are dominated by gospel and country, I can't describe how nice it is to be able to easily and legally queue up new releases. I did a couple of searches for every major release I could think of from the past twelve months. Radiohead, Fleet Foxes, TV on the Radio, Bon Iver, the Beastie Boys, Kanye West - all of these artists have their most recent albums available for streaming. With this service, you might never have to buy a new album again. 

Their library even yielded some more obscure stuff. On the college radio station, I heard an interesting track by the 80s electronic group YOU, an act so obscure that they don't even have a written entry on Allmusic. On a whim, I looked up the album Time Code, from 1983. Sure enough, Spotify had the whole thing available for streaming. It's not Lester Bangs' Basement yet, but we're getting there. 


Spotify has a lot of other services that I haven't really taken advantage of yet. You can devote some space on your hard drive for a Spotify cache, which would allow you to continue listening even if your computer is offline. There's Facebook integration, which allows you to browse what playlists your friends have made and listen to them yourself. And, of course, there's the Premium mobile phone app, which sounds like a good deal the more time I spend on Spotify. 

Yes, so far I've stuck with the free version, though there's a good chance I'll start paying once the free unlimited listening time goes away. Are there ads? Yes, but not so many that they detracted from the experience (although, unlike Pandora, the ads pause themselves if you mute your speakers - there's no escape!). For the amount of music I listen to while at my computer, $5 or $10 bucks a month would make Spotify totally worth it, and I appreciate the ability to listen to full albums that I'm not sure I want to buy. 

That being said, Spotify is not perfect. The search function is still a bit problematic, and took me some time to learn to use modifiers (you can search by genre, timespan, and so on) in order to narrow in on what I was looking for. And, like every other music service in the past ten years, Spotify is absolutely abysmal at cataloguing classical music. Someday, I still hope, there will be a service that realizes the value in cataloguing classical tracks by composer, genre, conductor and ensemble, and a service that treats multi-movement works as complete pieces, not like albums that yield "singles" of specific movements. But, in this sin, Spotify is no worse than any other service. 

The more annoying thing is the absence of a radio function, which was included in the European Spotify. When I first downloaded the application, my mind hit a blank on what I wanted to listen to. There were some recommended playlists (aka, paid ads), and the ability to browse through the Top 100 tracks and albums listened to by other Spotify members. But if I want to listen to new music in the vein of, say, Bj√∂rk, I have to know what I'm searching for. Spotify will not randomly play tracks for you; you have to have a specific artist in mind. 

Perhaps this is Spotify trying to distinguish themselves from Pandora, which is easily the most widely-recognized music service available in the States. Spotify seems to want to play nice with these other companies so far; for example, they also allow the user to scrobble his or her tracks to a account, a nice touch that I'm glad they included. 

As it stands, Spotify is certainly worth the current price of nothing, and could easily justify spending the small monthly subscription fee for the more premium tiers. The first few days I had Spotify, I was almost a little disappointed; I dove in expecting to be introduced to all sorts of new music, and the service doesn't really do that. But I kept returning to Spotify throughout the week. Everytime I heard a track on the radio, read about an artist that sounded interesting, remembered that I really meant to see what the big fuss about Mumford and Sons was all about, I could easily turn to Spotify. After a week, I was wondering how I could along without it.