When the music-streaming service Spotify became available in the States this July, many music buffs were elated. We’d heard about Spotify from European friends, who’ve had access for a few years. Some sneaky Americans even tricked their computers into believing they were overseas just so they could use the on-demand, anything/anytime service.
Although many companies already offered similar features to U.S. users, most operated in a murky legal zone suggesting that they might not last long and probably didn’t compensate artists for playing their songs. (Grooveshark, one of the most appealing competitors, has been sued by some of the industry’s biggest labels; Apple won’t even allow it on iPhones.) But Spotify was on the up and up — in fact, negotiating with music companies was the reason Americans had to wait so long to get it.
The Spotify debut was more complicated than expected. Though anyone could buy a subscription (two levels, costing roughly $5 or $10 a month), free memberships were invitation-only. We were told that would change soon, and now it has — with a catch: You don’t need an invitation anymore, but you do have to be on Facebook.
Tap-dancing around qualms customers might have about further ensnarement in Mark Zuckerberg’s “Who wants privacy?” empire, Spotify insists that sharing your listening habits with the world is strictly optional. But unless you know enough to change the default settings, your activity will be seen by anybody who sees you on Facebook — caveat emptor to any punk rocker worried about revealing his hidden weakness for show tunes.
Spotify is fundamentally different from Pandora, its main rival in the world of free, legit music streaming. Pandora is like a radio, with users selecting a genre, then listening to whatever Pandora plays for them; users can skip over songs they don’t like, but agreements with record labels (who instinctively fear giving consumers too much control) limit that skipping, even for subscribers to a no-ads, $36/year upgraded service.
Spotify, on the other hand, has talked labels into letting users not only skip songs they don’t like, but choose exactly what they hear and when. If Pandora’s a radio, Spotify’s a jukebox: Users choose any of 15 million songs at any time. Unlike Pandora, there are no restrictions on how often songs can be repeated or skipped — though once the “honeymoon” ends, free users will be limited to a paltry 10 hours of music a month and won’t be able to play any track more than five times.
Fifteen million songs is a lot, but any fan will be able to find holes in the inventory — the most glaring being the absence of Beatles music. The Fab Four have always been a new-technology holdout: Fans of a certain age will recall what big news it was when their LPs came out on CD. When iTunes finally got them, Apple was so proud it ran billboards for months. (The Beatles are, however, on Pandora.)
Beyond Liverpool’s finest, what Spotify lacks can be surprising given what it includes. Though roots-music stars such as the Carter Family and Robert Johnson are represented, the landmark “Anthology of American Folk Music” is absent. Though there’s much more spoken-word here than might be expected (look at all those Noam Chomsky lectures!), none of Bill Hicks’s original comedy albums are here.
Once you locate a given artist, Spotify may not have his best material. John Zorn, the saxophonist who seems to release records on a monthly basis, has only four albums here. Understandable, perhaps, since Zorn’s on his own small label — but what to make of the fact that only part of Billy Bragg’s back catalogue is here, despite it all being reissued at the same time by the same label a few years ago?
The program’s labeling of reissues and compilations can be confusing, and as is the case with other Internet services, casual listeners may not realize they’re getting sub-par music. Search for a hit song on YouTube, and you’ll likely hear a live version nowhere near as good as the original; search for a golden oldie on Spotify, and you may find a lame rerecording made years later.
You don’t amass 15 million songs by being a stickler for quality. A recording of Lou Rawls covering Otis Redding’s “Sad Song” sounds like it was made in a cardboard box, then played with a wet towel over the speakers. But in general, playback sounds about as good as can be expected over the ’net, and those who buy subscriptions get higher quality. (At the $9.99/month level, they can also download songs for offline listening, although these files are in a format that works only as long as you remain a subscriber.)
An iTunes-like sidebar makes it easy to create playlists of related material; a “what’s new” page monitors new and popular releases; and a new “radio” feature, like Pandora, automatically generates streams of music within a genre. Pandora’s suggestions are far more sophisticated, making it the clear choice for those who want to discover new music while letting computers do the work. For fans who already know what they want, Spotify’s the way to go.
Don’t worry about poking around to find these features — Spotify is happy to tell you about them. Though the free version of the player is ad-supported (running audio and display ads), I have yet to hear an ad that wasn’t for Spotify itself, most boasting about how easy it is to make playlists and share favorites with friends.
A company spokesman says an audio ad “runs after every third song,” but my trial a few weeks ago was nowhere near that predictable. Listening to Stephin Merritt’s “Obscurities,” I heard two ads after the first track, then four songs in a row, then twice more heard ads after only one song had played.
Luckily, subscriptions can be canceled at any time: Given how quickly the music landscape changes these days — and the inevitable entry of giants such as Apple, Google and Sony into the streaming-content arena — music nerds may discover a better must-have music service before Spotify’s honeymoon is over.
Defore is a freelance writer.