After lots of whining from music-biz pundits and whinging from the “make music free for meeee” crowd, the Sweden-based streaming-music service Spotify launched today in the States. Those in search of invites to the free, ad-supported version of Spotify have to hook up with the icky Twitter-influence site Klout (or have a friend who’s already done so); people willing to pay can either sign up for Spotify Unlimited ($4.99 a month, free unlimited streaming and no ads) or Spotify Premium ($9.99 a month, free unlimited streaming and access to the Spotify mobile app). Of the already-existing 10 million Spotify users, about 1.6 million pay for the service, according to numbers reported by The New York Times.
I’ve spent part of the morning playing with the service (I paid for the Premium version), and it certainly deserves some of the hype — while some have objected to the fact that Spotify uses its own app instead of being a web-based outlet, the interface is clean (thanks to it seemingly being based on that of iTunes), the audio quality is high (especially given that the songs’ building blocks are pieced together like Mike TeeVee in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory before arriving at your computer), and the integration with the music already on my hard drive is elegant enough that I might launch it instead of iTunes if I’m feeling like I want to venture past the limitations of my library.
Of course, one of the things about Spotify that many people in the biz are hoping is that listeners do venture beyond the music they already know — checking out new artists, albums that might be unfamiliar to them, and so on. So far the non-social discovery tools are somewhat limited; a couple of recent releases (Femme Fatale, the SBTRKT album, Gold Cobra (!)) are spotlighted on the front page, and users can also browse Top 100 albums and tracks lists. Those charts mirror the ones put out by Billboard to some degree, although there’s also the occasional surprise (who knew that in July 2011, people would still want to hear Avril Lavigne’s pop-gone-flat ode to being a badass “What The Hell”?). But there’s no music-based editorial, which means that the “search” function is your best way to navigate through Spotify’s offerings should you be looking for something specific.
There’s also the discovery aspect that comes from friends of yours; Facebook is integrated right into the client, and you can browse playlists from those people who are in your nearest-and-dearest file on that social-networking borg (and vice versa); songs that are on Spotify already can be streamed to your computer, and you can also send (streams of) songs to your pals. In a way, this curling up with your pals to hear records is similar to this summer’s other big digital-music launch, the slightly more Facebook-dependent Turntable.fm, only with the more Darwinistic gaming aspects removed; both also shut out people who don’t want to deal with Facebook, like our own close pal and curmudgeon Christopher R. Weingarten, who says, “I’m not on Facebook. I’m a grown man. I’m a fucking adult and i don’t need to be on more place for people to hand me their fucking demo tapes.”
Spotify’s catalog, while impressively large based on a few spot-checks from artists both indie and major, doesn’t represent the true ideal of the “celestial jukebox” where every song is available on demand right away, thanks to licensing requirements (you know, the things that get artists and publishers and other people in the music-business food chain paid); so if you want to listen to a gray-market release like, say, Lil Wayne’s Sorry 4 The Wait via Spotify, you’re going to have to download it yourself. (And no, it won’t offer leaked albums on demand, either. You had to ask?) These restrictions also apply to US listeners’ ability to stream some of the songs that are topping the service’s charts overseas (LMFAO, distressingly, seems to be internationally popular, but Katy B’s On A Mission, which is in the middle reaches of the UK chart and which doesn’t come out here until September, is only available to you via Spotify if your hard drive is in possession of it).
Of course, these roadblocks will likely be griped about by the Twittering masses — and the requirement that people join Klout, a Twitter piggybacker with a fumbling algorithm that might unexpectedly reveal you to be an expert on the royal wedding, has, as Chris noted, made the whole thing seem like some VIP party that you can pay $10 to get into and have a better experience. (And yes, gaining critical mass in this country might be something of a trick for the service; then again, I was a Twitter doubter not even two and a half years ago, so new habits can be learned.) But on the bright side, they are small steps on the road toward artists getting paid for the music they’ve laid to wax already — and the quality of the files is certainly more reliable than what you might find on your garden-variety Mediafire download. Which is probably why Ted Leo is clicking away:
Spotify! Psyched to get back all the dough I’ve lost on downloads over the years by playing all of my own songs 200,000,000 times each!
— Ted Leo (@tedleo) July 14, 2011