[My amazing intern at Future of Music Coalition, Scott Oranburg, wrote this overview of Spotify, which I thought was too cool not to also post here.]
OK, we can admit it: we’ve been pretty pumped about Spotify for a while now. The mega-hyped European music service has been been making tracks across the pond for a couple of years, but it was beginning to seem like a US launch would never happen. Now, after securing license agreements with Warner Music Group — the lone major label holdout — Spotify finally has the greenlight to open shop in America. For US listeners, Spotify offers a 3-tiered payment plan: Listen for free with advertisements (limitations, like listening hour caps will be introduced in six months); get unlimited ad-free music on your computer for $5/month; or get unlimited ad-free music on any computer and mobile device for $10/month.
We decided that it was well worth plunking down the ten bucks and taking the unlimited service for a ride. Why not? We’ve been waiting a while. In fact, when Casey Rae-Hunter interviewed Spotify founder/CEO Dan Ek live at the 2009 Future of Music Policy Summit, the Swedish entrepreneur said the service would launch later that year. Better late than never! (Casey also just spoke to American Public Media’s “Marketplace” about the US launch; check that out here.)
It’s really fast. And it works really well. And it sounds really, really good.
Although subscription on-demand music services have been around for a while now, none have managed to capture the same buzz as Spotify. We’re not naming names, but some initially struggled with clunky interfaces, iffy catalogs or weak marketing (or a combination). Meanwhile, Spotify seems to have been running on all cylinders in Europe right out of the gate. Our feeling about the American version is that it’s the real deal.
The entire interface feels incredibly familiar from the moment you login. The program itself looks a lot like iTunes, which many users have navigated for years. Playlists are stored to the left. Libraries are shown in the middle. Search bars are up top. Volume and playback controls are at the bottom. You can star songs or albums you like, and you can look back into your play history. And, Spotify’s unique caching and piecemeal streaming system makes everything play instantly, as if it were actually stored on your hard drive. Actually, the loading time was noticeably faster than our external harddrive on USB 2.0, and the quality on par with — or superior to — most of the tracks on iTunes or floating around cyberspace.
But the real “aha” moment comes when you realize just how expansive the Spotify catalog is. Search almost anything, and it’s right there for immediate playback. Choose entire albums or single tracks. Check out artists’ “top hits” before delving deeper into their catalog. And you can browse related artists’ discographies while you’re at it. It’s pretty much all the music you can imagine, immediately accessible and totally legal. The interface is fast and easy. Almost everything can be dragged-and-dropped, while playlists, libraries and even local files on your hard drive are immediately accessible with a single click.
The iPhone app is pretty killer (Android is on the way). Over WiFi, Spotify feels just as good and plays just as quickly as it does on a laptop. The interface still isn’t quite as intuitive as that of an iPod Touch, but it’s pretty close. But more importantly, the 3G streaming is unbelievably fast compared to similar subscription services like MOG or Rdio. Spotify’s caching system is very robust, so much so that playback is totally consistent if you start an album and let it play straight through. There’s no telling exactly how long the cache will run (for example, imagine losing service on the subway for a few stops), but from our initial use, it seems very rugged. Of course, the caching has to restart when skipping between songs, so 3G definitely has some limitations when compared with an MP3 player with local files. (Local device downloads, which last as long as you subscribe, pretty much solve this issue.)
Deeper into the Interface
OK, so maybe we’re just a bit giddy, but Spotify seems to actually change the music-listening experience, too. Think back to when you first got an iPod: all the music you owned was on one device, and it synced with your computer pretty seamlessly. Suddenly, everyone had their music with them at the gym, in the car, on flights, etc. Music became further entrenched into all of our lives, and that was in pretty much everyone’s best interest (unless that music wasn’t paid for). It seems that Spotify is now offering a similar evolution in the listening experience.This isn’t just because Spotify eliminates frustrating load times, duplicated files, missing cover art, corruption errors, shoddy external harddrive connections, over-capacity listening devices, or waiting for downloads to finish. Rather, Spotify’s real impact may extend beyond the polish of the interface; it may come from the way we can share music with each other.
The potential here seems unprecedented. Because all of this music is in the “cloud,” Spotify users can subscribe to others’ playlists, email songs, share tracks on Facebook or integrate with other third-party products like Turntable.fm. A decade after the MP3 revolution, Spotify has now made legal and streamlined the music-sharing process. While writing this, we literally asked around the office and on Facebook about new music suggestions. All was immediately searchable and streamable. From there, we could post favorite tracks to Facebook or throw ’em into our Turntable.fm queue for more people to discover. We even sent recently played songs to Mom, who is still listening to music suggestions from Mother’s Day 2009.
Spotify is well-integrated with Facebook, too. And, while previous social music offerings haven’t really taken off (like Apple’s Ping), Spotify’s social features have tons of potential. Went to your friend’s dance party last night? Great, check out her Spotify playlists, and grab the tracks immediately and legally. Share them with more of your friends following your playlists, throw them on your queue to listen to on the way to work, and then pick up where you left off once you sit down at your computer. From top to bottom, Spotify works really well and really quickly, and it creates a fluid music-listening experience that for many, may even trump Apple.
Impact on Artists
Of course, our primary concerns are about working musicians. We love to see new technology improve our experience with music, but we don’t want it to be at the expense of songwriters or performers. Fortunately, Spotify is completely legal, and pays rights holders (including musicians). Right now, the money coming to artists from such services is nothing like selling merch at shows, but it is a revenue stream. (In fact, independent musicians may fare better than major label artists due to contracts and “recoupables.”) There’s no way to predict whether subscriptions will eventually displace album sales — download or physical — and it’s also unclear how that shift would affect the music community as a whole. Still, it’s nice to see something that we think can legitimately “compete with free.” The rest comes down to user adoption of the premium service, licensing issues and contracts. We’ll be keeping an eye on all of these developments (and both ears on our Spotify).