Sometimes, dreams really do come true. For music lovers, one definitely became reality on Thursday with the arrival of Spotify’s streaming music service on American shores. After dominating the cloud music business throughout most of Europe in recent years, what’s with all the excitement for their U.S. debut? Let’s find out.
While mankind has yet to prove the existence of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, another mythological creature, Spotify, finally washed ashore in the United States on Thursday after more than a year of rumor, anticipation and speculation — with millions of potentially free music tracks in tow, courtesy of a digital high-five from all four major record labels.
What’s The Big Deal?
Many of us were sick of hearing about Spotify before it ever arrived, although that’s likely a case of Euro envy — it’s human nature to fear and loathe those things we can’t have, after all. It also took a whole lot of hand-wringing and negotiations to get Big Music to capitulate to Spotify’s latest venture, even though a number of similar services already exist, including Rdio, Mog, Rhapsody and the grandaddy of them all, Napster.
So what is Spotify? At its core, it’s free, ad-supported access to millions of music tracks through a cool Mac or Windows application (and if you’re willing to pay, your mobile device as well). Think of most any song you can imagine, type it into the search field at the top of the application, and within seconds you’ll probably be playing it — assuming you have an internet connection, since Spotify tracks are pulled down from the cloud.
The company’s mission is simple: ‘To let everyone listen to whatever they want, whenever and wherever they want.’ Even with a free account, Spotify promises that you’ll be exposed to less advertising than you would find on commercial radio. One element missing from the service is a web-based component — you’ll need a client application to use it, although you can install it on as many computers as you’d like.
One nifty Advantage: Spotify that we found: Tracks unavailable for individual purchase on iTunes (those marked ‘Album Only’) have no such limitation in Spotify, quite a nice bonus feature for those of us who want to sample such forbidden tracks from a given album without the labels forcing us to purchase the whole enchilada — ironically, one of the iTunes Store’s early advantages.
How To Get It
The Yankee edition of Spotify is pretty much a carbon copy of the European model, although free accounts are currently limited and by invitation only. We signed up for one of these mythical invites more than a week ago when the U.S. website first lit up, then signed up a few more times with other email addresses on Wednesday hoping to tip the odds in our favor — and have yet to see a single so-called invitation to our inbox.
The easiest way to get Spotify right this very minute is to cut in line with your old friends Abe Lincoln or Alexander Hamilton in hand (or rather, the equivalent credit card or PayPal account). $9.99 per month gets you Spotify Premium, the Rolls Royce plan for the service, completely ad-free with some nice exclusive features such as higher-quality tracks (up to 320kbps), offline playlist mode for those times when you have no internet connection and access to free iOS or Android apps. There’s also the equally ad-free Spotify Unlimited for $4.99 per month, with no limits on how much music you can play each month, but strictly limited to your Mac or PC.
The good news is, the more impatient among us can sign up now for a month of the paid options, then roll back to the free model if you decide it’s not for you (or are simply too cheap to pay for it) — effectively queue-jumping for the price of a cup of coffee or two, which also buys you the ability to feel superior to the more patient of your friends still waiting for invites. (We’re still waiting, although the receipt for our first month of Premium service was there within seconds. Go figure.)
How It Works
The Spotify Mac application is a lightweight but well laid out piece of software with plenty of neutral grey and black, making it easy on the eyes (or perhaps to make the full-color album artwork really stand out). At first launch you’re greeted with suggested new releases, as well as a feed from Spotify’s Twitter account and eventually, what your Facebook friends are busy sharing.
Yes, in keeping with the trend du jour, Spotify connects to your Facebook account for quick sharing of your favorite tracks or playlists, although this is entirely optional (being the private type, we shut off those sharing features post haste). You can also share what you’re playing via Twitter, Windows Messenger (?!) and of course, with other Spotify users as well. Entire music tracks can also be shared with these friends simply by dragging and dropping them onto their name in the people list, where they’ll appear in their Spotify Inbox.
If none of the new releases suit you, type the name of an artist, album or song into the search field and you’ll instantly get a list of results. As with iTunes, double-click to play a track and be amazed at how quickly playback begins — if we didn’t know any better, we’d swear that we had accidentally started playback of a track stored on our hard disk, but that was not the case. Music fans concerned about buffering, skipping or otherwise poor performance will be pleasantly surprised.
From the large playlist portion of the Spotify window, you can see at a glance what’s going to stream and what’s going to play locally — tracks unavailable for streaming appear greyed out, and local files have a tiny music note symbol next to them in the far right column. A large box in the lower left corner displays the album artwork; click on it to jump straight to that album when browsing elsewhere in the program, or you tuck away a smaller version of the artwork with just a click, if you’d like.
Likewise, you can click on an artist’s name from most anywhere in the application to jump to an overview of their work, along with biography of same. Related artist recommendations are also part of the mix, making it easy to find whatever you happen to be into.
iTunes, Meet Spotify
The last thing most of us need is yet another music player on our computers, which is why Spotify allows you to import existing iTunes playlists and even sync them to portable devices (more on that in a moment). That means subscribers get the best of both worlds: Their own music library, side by side with millions of cloud-based tracks a mere click away.
The desktop application sidebar features a cornucopia of iTunes-style options, with Spotify specific selections such as What’s New, Play Queue, Inbox and Devices at top, followed by a list of choices focused on your local Library (including Local Files, Starred and all of your non-smart iTunes playlists). Playback controls live under the artwork displayed at the bottom left of the window, with a hide-able ‘people list’ at right so you can see which of your Facebook friends are actually cool enough to join you in this new adventure.
If you’re still rocking it old school with a pre-iOS iPod, you can ditch iTunes and sync directly to Spotify — but fair warning, you’ll need to erase your iPod to do so, and if you decide to go back to iTunes, you’ll have to repeat this process again. The good news is, more modern devices such as the iPhone, iPod touch or Android devices can wirelessly sync to the Spotify mobile app via Wi-Fi — simply open the app while on the same network as the Mac or Windows app, and your device will appear in the sidebar. Users can choose to sync all music to a device or just specific playlists, and it’s easy to jump straight to any of them with just a click.
On the bad news front, syncing is only available for local music files (i.e., the stuff you already own that lives on your hard disk), but the same Spotify app allows access to all of the same streaming goodness anyway. With a required Premium account, you can also store up to 3,333 tracks via offline mode on up to three computers or devices at a time. We tried this with our iPhone 4 and an Android-powered Asus Eee Pad Transformer as well as our Mac, and it’s truly as magical (and thankfully, simple) as you might expect. (The Spotify Android app isn’t optimized for Honeycomb tablets, but works quite nicely as is.) Note that offline tracks are stored within the Spotify app only — they won’t appear in your iPod/Music app.
Finally, while iTunes tracks with digital rights management (DRM) show up in Spotify playlists, they can’t be played there — you’ll get a message across the top of the screen along with a one-click option to remove them. Such files are clearly indicated in red, so you can’t miss them. Here’s hoping we can finally rid our libraries of such tracks once and for all when iTunes Match launches in the fall!
Is It For Me?
Since Spotify isn’t exactly loose with the invitations just yet, most of us won’t really be able to give the free version a test drive right out of the gate. After a few hours of poking around on launch day, we’d say the service is easily worth dropping five or 10 bones for the first month — we shelled out $9.99 for a month of Premium service, and even found four invites in our account to share with friends (no, you can’t have one, sorry). Why not find four other friends willing to chip in two bucks each so all five of you can cut straight to the head of the line today?
Ultimately, any of these streaming music services are dependent upon personal tastes and listening habits. The mobile versions of Spotify will likely be hamstrung for many users by the carriers’ draconian efforts to limit our data plans — such users will find the service most useful on home or work computers, assuming you don’t have metered service there as well.
Our initial reaction to Spotify after a few hours of use is that the service was definitely worth waiting for. Even with our somewhat particular music tastes (mostly trapped in the ‘80s and early ‘90s), we were able to find plenty to listen to — including sampling tracks and albums that we’ve on the fence about buying, likely to the gleeful delight of the record labels.
More to the point: Will generations of Americans raised on owning their music on LP records, eight-track or cassette tapes, compact discs and as digital files find themselves willing to buy into a monthly ‘all you can eat’ subscription service at long last? Time will tell.
Follow this article’s author, J.R. Bookwalter on Twitter
(Via Mac|Life all.)