The big news last week was the U.S. launch of the European game changing music program Spotify. People were climbing over each other for a rare invite to use the service with good reason: Spotify has a fantastic reputation that it cultivated over years of its European only existence. As someone with virtually no idea what Spotify even was as it launched here, I rode the wave on my twitter stream and just signed up for one of the elusive sign-up codes given out to Klout members just because everyone seemed so excited and I love music.
Most of my talk about Spotify will be about the Spotify Free, as that is the type of account I have.
Upon booting Spotify for the first time, it grabs all your local music and puts it in your Library. If you have iTunes, it’ll grab all of your non-Smart playlists as well as that whole library and add it to Spotify. At first blush, Spotify feels a lot like iTunes: tracks can be organized in much the same way and it services as an MP3/AAC/etc player with no trouble.
The on-line and social aspects of Spotify are what separate it from being just another MP3 player. It is also a music streaming service with licenses from a lot of artists. A search bar at the top left of the client lets you search for any music you can think of by artist, track and album title. The results that come back favor your local library and then expand beyond that to pretty much any streaming track available. This library is pretty exhaustive, giving you access to a lot of music you do not own.
Notable artists missing include The Beatles. Sometimes a specific version of a track maybe hard to find, for example I couldn’t find the radio edit of Neil Diamond’s version of Sweet Caroline. But this is nit picking. For the most part, unless it’s a very small or obscure artist, odds are you can find it on Spotify. Once you find your way around, you realize you can open whole albums, all songs by an artist or even make your own saved playlist composed of just streaming tracks.
It connects to your Facebook account, allowing you to share playlists with other Spotify users in your Facebook friends, and lets you see their playlists as well. Because Spotify has that large library of tracks that can be streamed, a good chunk of the playlists your friends have can be played on your computer even if you don’t have those files yourself. Spotify also lets you send stuff specifically to another Facebook friend of yours in program, which is a nice touch.
If you’re a Last.fm user, it merges your local library with your Last.fm account pretty well from my understanding. As someone that also doesn’t do much Last.fm, I haven’t used this feature, but have seen friends who have and they gush about it.
So that’s the good, but Spotify isn’t all good. Notably, Spotify lacks a very basic feature that most MP3 player have: playcounts. It’s small things like this that you would never think you’d miss until you start using a player that doesn’t have them.
Another problem Spotify has is that it doesn’t have a Pandora station building or iTunes Genius like feature. As a fan of “random… to a point” type playlists that Pandora and iTunes offer me, this missing feature makes Spotify largely useless to me unless I have a very specific idea of what I want. And if I have that specific artist or track I want to listen to, why bother using Spotify? iTunes already does this for me.
Some people will point to Spotify’s large streaming library as an advantage that it has over iTunes, but as an old guy at twenty nine years old, I’m still hung up on wanting to own my music. If I like something enough that I would look it up on Spotify’s search specifically, odds are I own it. Besides, Spotify could disappear tomorrow and the streaming service that it has is gone. The tracks I own are mine until the end of time thanks to being digital and therefore infinitely duplicatable with no loss of quality (unlike the old days of analog). And while, for a while, it seemed that if you lost some of your digital tracks they would be gone, more and more services are letting you re-download if you suffer a massive loss.
And if you’re reading this blog, odds are, you’re already backing up all your music anyway. The odds you will lose your library is already small. Smaller than the odds an internet company will fold or become obsolete.
Spotify Free (and Spotify Open, which I believe is Europe only) are both supported by ads instead of a fee from the user. This is natural, the era of free stuff on the web is coming to an end (as it should, artists should be compensated). There are banner adds that randomly appear on both the bottom horizontally, and more annoying, in the middle of the UI vertically as well.
Spotify also knows when you’re streaming and will randomly play ads between tracks. This leads to some problems, as many ads on Spotify are are often songs from other artists. This caused a twitter friend of mine to quit Spotify, she was streaming her calm playlist when suddenly an ear pounding track from LMFAO started playing.
This also caused problems for me if Spotify was due to play an ad after the last track on a playlist: if I tried to play another track on another list I would get a small message: “This track will play after an ad for Spotify.” Only that ad never played. I gave Spotify twenty minutes once to play an ad that was coming and it never happened. I had to close out and re-open the program in order to gain functionality back. Additionally, some tracks just refused to load for me. Spotify does a great job of telling you when a track is not streamable by greying out the track name, so I know these were streamable tracks. I would move down the album and eventually a track would stream, so something was buggy there as well.
Some might say that’s acceptable for a new program, but this program really isn’t new, it’s just finally available in the United States.
One game changer that Spotify seemingly has is Spotify Premium, their $10 a month service. This removes all ads and most importantly, adds a lot to your mobile music experience, allowing you to change your library on the fly. Meaning if you forgot to put a track on your phone and now want to listen to it, Spotify will make it available for you. You can also stream music like you can with the desktop client. This seems great until you remember that iTunes Match is launching this Fall.
iTunes Match will also let you change your mobile library on the fly, in addition to allowing you to have the same library on multiple computers at the same time. In other words it is near the exact same service as Spotify Premium. The difference is that iTunes match will be $25 for the year, where as Spotify Premium is $120 for a year. While you will not be able to use the streaming library, this brings me back to my original point on that: the streaming library is only useful if you know exactly what you’re looking for. And for many of us, if we know exactly what the track is, odds are we own it.
And it still doesn’t have Genius.
All that said, I still use Spotify. I use it like a TweetDeck or other software specifically for music sharing. It’s social tools are undeniably better than iTunes Ping. I can easily share what I’m playing and see what my friends are. If there is an album I’d like to try before I buy, Spotify is better than the MySpace/YouTube/Wild Goose Chase that we used to have to do. I can look at friend’s playlists and I can even build playlists with them. If you favor a streaming service over ownership of your tracks, Spotify might tilt over to be your new favorite music program. And who knows, if the launch iTunes Match forces Spotify to compete at price point, there could be a real argument to be made for it.
But current Spotify is spotty. And with Google+ threatening to remove all the young people from Facebook, will Spotify be able to adapt to keep its most useful aspect: social media, worthwhile? If you’ve been having trouble getting into Spotify, don’t worry. It’s not life altering, but it is interesting.