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See Spot Run

by Paul Rapp on July 27, 2011

Well, Spotify finally got here. The music-streaming service that has proven so wildly popular in Europe debuted here a couple weeks ago. So far, it’s living up to the hype.

 Free Spotify accounts are readily available through invitation; in Europe a few years ago, open registration caused such a crush that the servers came down, so entry is now regulated. You can ask for an invitation directly from the company’s site or get one from a friend or any number of companies offering them as promotions.

A free account involves unlimited listening over the Internet, but you have to deal with commercials every four or five songs. The commercials I’ve heard so far are for Spotify’s premium services or for particular artists; the commercials are annoying and a little too loud, and the artist ads aren’t calibrated to correspond with what you’re listening to. I was listening to the new Dave Alvin album and had to suffer through an ad for some gangsta clown. Harshed my mellow, to put it mildly.

But still, what fun. Spotify claims something like 15 million tracks in its catalog, so your listening is pretty much limited by your brain’s ability to come up with what you want to listen to right now. Like all the other legal services, there are some gaping holes: no Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, etc. And there are still territorial issues: A fave Japanese band that has a bunch of fabulous albums out everywhere on earth but the United States is not in Spotify’s U.S. catalog save for one live track from Bonnaroo.

The terms of the current free service are a little confusing and may change over time, but it looks like you get unlimited free listening (with ads) for six months, then the amount will be limited to a set number of hours a month. There’s no mobile app at the free stage, so you’re listening over your computer only. At $5 a month you get unlimited listening with no ads, and at $10 a month you get that plus mobile apps and an offline feature that appears to allow you to listen to previously selected playlists on your computer or smartphone even if there’s no Internet handy. In other words, for $10 a month, you can have access to 15 million tracks wherever, whenever. Stop to contemplate that one for a minute.

What sets Spotify apart from the other streaming services that have been out there for a couple of years (Rhapsody, MOG, Grooveshark, etc.) is its ease of use and operability. It’s not browser-based like the others, with all the clunkiness that involves. The stand-alone interface is incredibly simple and follow-your-nose simple. There’s no learning curve; you just log on, search and play. It’s like a simpler version of iTunes. A caveman could do it. Probably the biggest advance is that Spotify is in part a peer-to-peer service, like an updated and legal Napster. Your music isn’t all coming from a Spotify server somewhere. Everyone on the Spotify network is contributing to some degree to the flow of music, and that makes Spotify much faster and more reliable that its predecessors. My experience has been that listening was instantaneous.

There is also a social aspect involving posting, sharing and collaborating on playlists. I haven’t had time to get my brain around this one, and personally I don’t feel a burning need to share my private listening experiences with anybody. But a number of friends are posting theirs—local sex god Matthew Carefully has been putting up nicely curated playlists of local tracks that you can drag into your computer and enjoy. At some point I know I’ll be doing it too.

The major criticism one hears is that Spotify hasn’t been paying musicians and songwriters very much money. The nattering nabobs don’t understand how things work. The deal Spotify has with record companies and publishers is for a percentage of Spotify’s income. Right now and for the near future, Spotify isn’t gonna have a whole lot of revenue, so the payouts are necessarily small. But as Spotify grows, so will the revenue, and it’s quite possible that in a couple of years everybody will be getting paid multiples of what they’re getting now, not just from Spotify, but from everywhere. Think about what will happen if enough folks think the $10 Spotify experience is better than (a) paying 99 cents to own a crappy track, or especially (b) rooting around the Internet for free tracks. Suffice it to say that in Sweden, Spotify’s home country, Spotify is paying record companies more money than any other retailer, online or off.

Internet theorists have long maintained that the music business, to survive, has to successfully “compete with free.” Spotify is the first company to test that theory.