Spotify's free music model - binge until your ears are fat!

Allan MacLean | Saturday, 11 April 2009

Spotify's free music model - binge until your ears are fat!

Cast your mind back to the prehistoric grimness of the era before the advent of the MP3. To the land of Our Price, Woolworths and actually having a record store in your local town. To having to take a punt on an unknown band or artist and being lumped with a less than satisfactory album and ashamedly filing it in your record collection, disgruntled and out of pocket. The inevitable revenge of the record buying consumer has been acted out through the meteoric rise of piracy and peer-to-peer sharing, and often the justification for this has been along the lines of "I'm just trying it out; if I really like it, I'll buy it," but just how many people are actually practicing what they preach?

The decline in CD sales speaks for itself: physical singles plummeted 43.5% in 2008 compared to the previous year, with digital downloading rapidly increasing its market share, although thus far legal downloads haven't quite made up the gap in sales created by piracy. The fairly new music streaming service Spotify is seeking to offer an alternative to piracy and educated guessing when buying music, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of similar ventures that essentially allow people to listen to music without owning it. Users can listen to as much music as they like without paying a penny. Granted, they'll have to put up with the occasional thirty-second advert (probably the rather annoying 'Roberta from Spotify', or Jo Whiley championing The Script), but it's all above board and won't leave listeners feeling like a thief for pursuing their musical inquisitiveness. The main drawback is that users cannot copy the tracks to disc, unless they purchase them (if available) from Spotify's download partner 7digital. At the time of writing, this service is currently only available to users from France, Spain and the UK.

Spotify has been touted as the saviour of the music industry and simultaneously the final nail in the coffin of the physical release. Certainly, Spotify is attempting to discourage users from piracy and copyright infringement, offering such an extensive catalogue to browse so as to render mass-downloading of classic catalogue releases redundant. Searching 'year:0-9999' (which should give all possible results) presents 2,689,893 songs, and with all the major labels signed up and thousands more songs being added on a regular basis, it's fast becoming one of the biggest online music services in the world. There are some notable exceptions to its catalogue though: no Beatles apart from shudder-inducing karaoke medley versions and no Pink Floyd other than covers. Presumably, labels have warmed to Spotify because they realise just how dire the situation facing them is; the pittance in royalties artists must be receiving from each tracked played is undoubtedly better than having their music effectively stolen from piracy magnates. Whether Spotify will be a boost to the recording industry is yet to be discerned, but with the ongoing saga between YouTube and PRS meaning that all premium music videos remain invisible to UK users, Spotify is destined to lap up some of the traffic from users wanting to hear their favourite songs for free.

The advertisements on Spotify, which rear their heads every six or so songs, are undoubtedly annoying. But the fact that Iggy Pop's script for the Swiftcover insurance company ad currently doing the rounds has burnt an indelible mark on my brain proves that they are, to an extent, effective. Now all I need is something to insure. Pressing your computer's mute key simply pauses the advert, which is rather sneaky of them, but you can always turn your volume down to minimum and then crank it up again in thirty seconds time. It's not ideal, but it is a skill at which one can become quite adept. There really is no cause for complaint however, as if the ads bother you that much you can always choose to subscribe to the uninterrupted ad-free service for £9.99 a month.

It was time to put Spotify's promise of untold tunes to the test. After watching MiloŇ° Forman's stunning Amadeus a little Mozart was called for. And sure enough, moments later, a swathe of results was returned: Requiem in D minor sat prominently on-top, and the quality of the stream was good - very good, in fact. But the experience wasn't entirely gratifying. It's hard to overstate just how much of a vibe killer Lady Sovereign promoting her "new album exclusively on Spotify Premium" is between movements. On the other hand, one of the sheer joys of Spotify is the element of surprise. Having watched the 1982 'erotic anthropomorphic horror' film Cat People (and that really is how it was described in the synopsis) a simple search for 'Cat People' on Spotify would surely have had no hope of garnering any search results? Well, you'd be wrong. Not only did the music engine return the whole official soundtrack, but also the edited single version of the David Bowie-penned title-track.

The slick user interface makes Spotify a real pleasure to use and doesn't cripple your computer with its memory and processing demands. It doesn't bombard you with information and recommendations to the extent that the main portal of the iTunes store does, and it has refined the iTunes formula with its twist on the playlist. While you can compile music for your own pleasure, you've also the option of sharing your selections via linking the playlist with your mates; a 'collaborative playlist', according to Spotify. The really ingenious aspect is that your friends can then add their chosen tracks to the same playlist, bringing a real sense of community to the service. This sense of participation is not solely the preserve of Spotify - every music service from to Rhapsody has their own spin on it, but it is executed simply and effectively within this application.

In the US, Rhapsody is offering a similar service to Spotify where users can pay $12.99 a month for a web-based unlimited streaming package, or $14.99 for a slightly upgraded version where they can export their rented music to a portable device. The major problem with this is that it doesn't have iPod support, and when you stop paying the monthly fee, your compiled music library vanishes into the digital ether. There remains the option to buy the tracks from Rhapsody's catalogue, but anyone with an iTunes Store account and Spotify can now effectively amalgamate the services that Rhapsody's $12.99 package provides without being encumbered with the fees.

Another major player on the subscription scene is Napster - the catalyst behind all these ideas; it's had to reinvent itself from its originally contentious free peer-to-peer model and adopt a stance similar to Rhapsody. Again, it is hindered by lack of iPod support, as Apple bluntly refuses to weaken the iTunes Store market share. Like Rhapsody, it offers staggered levels of paid membership, with additional features available for an increased monthly fee. It currently claims to have around 7 million songs, which dwarfs Spotify's current total by a considerable margin.

Despite the meteoric rise of Spotify, it has had its fair share of bumps in the road. Anyone who had registered with the service before 19th December 2008 was at risk of having their personal data compromised by hackers poking holes in the service's security, including information of the user's address, date of birth and password. A potentially disastrous slip-up in light of a lot of people's preference to use the same password for all of their internet activity. Initial teething problems aside, Spotify looks set to grow rapidly by cherry-picking the best parts of music subscription services and bypassing the elements of virtual ownership that have previously put users off. As long as it can retain its current good favour with the labels, and relationship with the user, it will continue to be a vast and inexhaustible resource for the voracious appetite of the music fan in the digital age.