spotify: streaming the future?

Posted: March 18, 2009 in internet, music, Technology

There’s been a lot of buzz in the UK and Europe recently about Spotify, a Swedish-based music service that allows you to legally listen to hundreds of thousands of unlimited tracks by top artists with the blessing of major record labels. If you live in the UK, France, Spain or Scandinavia the service is even free (albeit supported by ads). Sound too good to be true? Well yes and no.

Basically Spotify is a streaming service based on peer-to-peer file-sharing technology – you can’t as yet download any tracks to your PC or copy them to your iPod (an iPhone wi-fi app is in the works, apparently) – but the difference between Spotify and previous streaming services is that playback is as instant as clicking on a song in your iTunes library. There’s no irritating buffering or downloading to wait for and the sound is astonishingly good (it streams at around 160kb/sec). The other difference is the sheer selection of artists and tracks. The service is still in beta and the catalogue is very much a work in progress – some tracks disappear from time to time as Spotify negotiates copyright issues in various countries – so while as yet there is no Beatles, Oasis or Led Zep, there’s plenty of Stones, Bob Marley, Coldplay, Beyonce, Collie Buddz and many, many more.

It is basically like having a universal jukebox and control of the world’s radio stations at your fingertips. Pick an artist, track, or album, create a playlist, share it with others or listen to streams by genre, theme or decade. Want to listen to that rare 1999 EP by the then unknown Coldplay over and over again? Go ahead.

It’s similar in many ways to the excellent – and totally free – social music network Last.fm (with whom Spotify collaborates). I think Last.fm – free for the basic service and about $3.50/month or $41 for a year for premium services –  is better for discovering new music and its artist pages are superb, complete with searchable videos, but Spotify wins when it comes to quickly finding what you want to play.  On Last.fm’s player, for example, you can’t just enter an artist and select a specific track without going back to the main website.

One big downside is that at present the free Spotify service is not yet available in Bermuda and North America. To use Spotify, you have to pay for the Premium ad-free service (about $12 a month, or $120 a year – but you can cancel anytime). That sounds a lot but maybe not in comparison to the number of albums you might buy on iTunes or Amazon. I’ll still buy albums and tracks I really love and need to have with me on that long flight or train journey but the more I listen to Spotify in my home/office, less than 50 cents a day seems a small price to pay for having instant access to tracks I just feel like listening to there and then without having to log in, search, buy and download. Better yet, it totally removes the temptation to use an illegal service that might screw up my hard drive.

If you spend a lot of time working at a desk or on a laptop, then Spotify is worth investigating. As long as you have an internet connection and Spotify installed (you can install it on as many machines as you want but can only play tracks on one machine at a time), a non-stop world of music is literally a click away and as connectivity becomes ubiquitous and faster, then a streaming service of this quality definitely has its merits.

Shame they couldn’t come up with a better name, though. It’s a combination of “spot” and “identify” – as in discovering new music and artists – but it’s still rubbish.

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