Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hands-On with Spotify

Although it's still in the very initial stages, the much-lauded Swedish music streaming service Spotify has made its way stateside. Boasting a library of over 15 million songs and freshly inked contracts with every major US label (and a quality selection of indies, as well), it's off to no small start. I got myself an invite to see what all the fuss was about, having heard glorious praises sung by my friends and family in the UK who've had access to it for a few years now. With the blogosphere throwing around powerful terms like "next big thing" and "iTunes killer", all eyes are on Spotify, but does it really live up to the hype?

Yes, it absolutely does. I would go as far as to say that the hype doesn't really justify just how revolutionary Spotify is. It has the potential to completely re-invent the way we listen to music online. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Spotify has a familiar iTunes-esque interface that automatically and seamlessly imports your iTunes library (including all playlists) upon installation. After that, you're free to search for and stream just about any music you can possibly think to listen to. It's really that easy. The selection is frankly a little intimidating; I spent a solid hour searching for bands I was sure they wouldn't have to try and stump the search engine, and nearly every time I was pleasantly surprised. There's no way to adequately praise the sheer volume of artists you can listen to on Spotify, since I really don't comprehend the scope of what their library includes. I'll probably use the service for years to come and still not realize all the choices.There's just so much depth and diversity to the selection, it's almost intimidating. The social aspects of Spotify are nothing to be ignored, either; creating public playlists and sharing them with friends is seamless, and the Facebook integration is perfection.

Starting off, you need an invitation to access the free version of Spotify. Like Pandora and other free streaming music services, copyright agreements pose time restrictions and limits the amount of times you can listen to a particular song. Spotify's free service gives the user 10 hours of listening time per month and each song can be listened to up to 5 times. The free version is ad-supported, but the ads are infrequent and not overly obnoxious (they're usually just advertising more music you can listen to on Spotify). Obviously, listening to locally stored mp3's doesn't cut into your monthly play quota, so it's worth using the program as a replacement for iTunes (it even syncs your local files to your iPod) with the option of listening to new music whenever you'd like. For $4.99 a month, you can get the Unlimited service which, as the name implies, allows you to bypass ads and time restrictions and listen to streaming music to your heart's content. Then there's the Premium Service for $9.99 a month, which also allows you to store playlists offline and listen when you're not connected to the internet. Additionally, users with a premium subscription can stream music from their smartphones or Squeezebox radios via a Spotify app (there's also an app for Free and Unlimited subscribers, but it only allows access to local files and not the Spotify library).

Though they are few in number and greatly outnumbered by the benefits, Spotify has a few flaws that are hard to ignore. First off, as we've covered, Spotify has an overwhelmingly vast collection of tunes; this collection would be put to much better use if there was some sort of efficient way of browsing it. Don't get me wrong, the search function works perfectly, but the search-only navigation makes it difficult to discover new music within the program. Sure, they have "related artists" on every artist page, but what Spotify really needs is some kind of recommendation engine, like iTunes' Genius or even Netflix Recommendations. It shouldn't be so difficult since Spotify automatically imports your current music library, so it probably already has a good idea of what you like to listen to from the get-go. Another negative is that some music just won't stream; you can click furiously and ad nauseum, but the songs will refuse to load. I'm sure this is just due to the service being in the very early stages (it's been reported that some of the smaller record labels haven't even finished uploading yet), but it's a serious problem that needs ironing out. Other than those two greivances, there's not a whole lot to complain about here.

So there you have it. Spotify has the very real potential to be the iTunes killer it's been built up to be. I haven't even booted up iTunes since installing it, and I love Spotify so much that's I've already upgraded to the $4.99 Unlimited service. In my first two days of use, I used 4 hours of the 10 hour limit, and five bucks is a pretty small price to pay for unlimited music so this seemed like the logical step for me. I'm not really drawn to the Premium service since I don't like listening to music on my phone and am never really offline long enough to need an offline playlist. What would make the Premium service worthwhile for me would be some way to listen to the vast library through my car radio (in Spain, auto-maker SEAT has already introduced a vehicle with Spotify integration), but for now I'm happy just listening to the neverending jukebox on my computer. Give it a shot and you'll be happy too.

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