Spotify - more than just hype?

Music servers and computer audio
Spotify - more than just hype?

After years of legal battles, Spotify has finally arrived in the US. The online music service that has taken Europe by storm is now officially available to American listeners. I've been using this since it first appeared to UK listeners more than two years ago, so I'm in a good position to point out Spotify's great strengths, and its significant weaknesses.

What is Spotify?

Spotify is an online music service with millions of tracks available. Think of it as a massive extension to your iTunes browser, with all the tracks you don't own just as readily available as all the ones you do. There are three service packages; the invite-only Spotify Free for users prepared to put up with occasional advertisements and relatively high compression, a similar version without advertisements called Spotify Unlimited for $4.99 per month, and a $9.99 Premium service with a better compression rate, and the ability to port the service to a range of cellphones and other devices. 

How does it work?

Whichever service you decide upon, you download Spotify's browser from the website. This sits on your computer's hard drive. Whenever you log in to that browser, it connects to Spotify's online server farm, that allows you to stream music instantaneously. If you decide you like something so much you want to own it there and then, you can buy the file or album by clicking on the 'buy' button, although so far this only leads to MP3-quality downloads. Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis compression algorithms, streaming q5 (roughly equivalent to 160kbps MP3) for the Free and Unlimited versions and the option of q9 (c. 320kbps MP3) for Premium costomers. There is also a low-bandwidth q3 delivery service (roughly 96kbps MP3) for poor internet connections and cellular users.

From a business standing, it works if enough users pay for the Premium service, and because the music business likes the concept, because it reduces piracy. The logic goes as follows; who's going to steal something they can get for free? It seems to work; it's reputed to have drastically reduced file-sharing music piracy in Sweden, where the service first launched.

Why should I be interested?

For the audiophile, Spotify's big bonus is when it's used as a 'music discovery' service. Here's how it works; either import all your files from iTunes (or similar) and click on a file or simply type in an artist you like into the search bar on the top left side of the Spotify browser. Then click on one of the 'related artists' that appear on the right side of the main browser window. Chances are, surfing through these, you will come across forgotten gems and new nuggets you want to own. You can also see what your designated friends are listening to and share playlists.

Another great option for music discovery (or useful background music play) is the radio service. This allows you to select by genre and by decade, doesn't provide limits on the type of genre you choose and throws up enough curve-balls to make you always two tracks away from discovering something new.

It also allows integration with Last.FM and works extremely well with Sonos users who control their systems using Apple iPads. 

What's not to love?

It's not perfect, nor is it the complete canon of music. I can't say for certain what's going to appear on Spotify US, because the catalog varies from country to country. However, if you are planning to listen to everything currently on the service, you need to plan to live to a ripe old age, because there are millions of tracks on there, including pretty much the entire Naxos classical catalog (in the UK at least). However, some of the larger, more established acts are conspicuous by their absence (type AC/DC or The Beatles into the search engine and you will get lots of tribute acts of variable quality).

Spotify's biggest problem is that its handling of classical music is relatively poor. The search engine is perfectly geared up for contemporary artist/album/track sorting, but you'll quickly lose the will to live when putting the term 'Mahler' into the same. Even tighter search parameters aren't necessarily successful, as you can end up with symphonic movements sorted randomly and occasionally need to perform some 'button mashing' to prevent playing a symphony that changes orchestra and conductor with every movement.

Despite the hype surrounding Spotify, in the two years it has taken to come to the US market, significant rivals (most notably Grooveshark) have appeared to tarnish its crown. Spotify has changed its free service considerably in other regions, as it hit capacity limits; the US model is similar to the free service that used to be provided to the rest of the world. However, now free users are capped at 20MB streams and five-track limits, and it's unclear whether the same hobbling of the free service will one day apply to US customers.

From two-years experience...

In some respects, Spotify does live up to the hype. Having used the service for two years (most of which as a Premium consumer, not on any Spotify freebie list), I have found the service beneficial. It fills some of the gaping hole in my music acquisition process left after the death of John Peel (a UK disc jockey from the 1960s until his death in 2004, John Peel was instrumental in breaking new bands and Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, The Smiths, Pulp and more all got their big break due to 'Peely'). I have found my CD buying has increased significantly because of Spotify, as new discoveries lead to visits to Amazon or my nearest record store (we still have a few in the UK) or found FLAC downloads of these new - or new to me - artists. I have tried the 'buy' service, but the resultant MP3 tracks did not appeal. I would like it to have better classical track handling, but the whole issue of classical music metadata is something of a minefield that extends far beyond Spotify. 

In addition, as a soundtrack to a dinner party, the radio function is an excellent alternative to Shuffle on iTunes.

From a sound quality standing, the full q9 service is pretty good. I know of at least one manufacturer who sneakily uses Spotify in demonstrations, as its prime music source. I wouldn't go that far, not least because some of the tracks aren't the best versions available and the sound is a fraction 'reedy' when compared to a FLAC file or the original CD. It's not reference quality sound, but it's better than 'good enough for government work'. 

Is it worth it? That depends on what you want from Spotify. It does stand apart (slightly) from Pandora and Last.FM and Grooveshark, but perhaps not enough to entice users to pay an extra $10 per month for an additional service. That being said, the combination of Last.FM and Spotify (with your own collection, filling in the gaps) and all played on a Sonos and controlled by an iPad does give one the impression of having all the music in the world at your fingertips.

If you want to add the last five per cent to an almost complete music collection and you already have strong ideas of where that last five per cent is coming from, I'd say a resounding 'no' to Spotify. However, if you are still in the never-ending build-up of your music collection and are not only unsure where to go next, but also love the feeling of freedom and creativity that uncertainty engenders, just sign up today. A word of warning, though; the $10 per month will be nothing compared to the hundreds of dollars you'll end up spending on new music. Welcome to my world!

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