July 28 (Bloomberg) -- It’s human nature that nothing’s as alluring as what you can’t have. That’s certainly proven to be the case with the online music service Spotify.
A big success in Europe, it has developed a mystique among U.S. digerati unable to access it without resorting to elaborate workarounds. Now it has arrived, and it turns out to be largely worthy of the buzz.
Spotify is cloud-based, meaning that its collection of some 15 million tracks is stored on and accessed over the Internet. It differs from services like Apple Inc.’s iTunes in that you aren’t purchasing and downloading individual tracks or albums to your computer or smartphone. Instead, you decide what you want to hear when you want to hear it, and stream it in real time.
There are three tiers of service. The basic, free option, which is currently available on a by-invitation basis, gives you access to the full Spotify catalogue. But you can only listen over a computer once you’ve downloaded and installed its free, iTunes-like software. Versions are available for both Microsoft Windows-based PCs and Apple Macs, though there’s no option for accessing the service through a Web browser if you happen to be away from your own computer.
The free service also carries ads, and after an introductory period you’ll be limited to 10 hours of listening a month and a maximum of five plays per track. Getting rid of the ads and limits requires a $4.99-a-month “unlimited” subscription. For $9.99, you also get to play Spotify tracks on your smartphone or tablet, and to access the service through Internet-connected sound systems like Sonos wireless speakers and Logitech’s Squeezebox line.
I’ve been trying out the premium service for a couple of weeks, running it on both a PC and a Mac and installing its app on both an iPhone 4 and an Android phone, Samsung’s Droid Charge. While none of Spotify’s individual features or components is truly revolutionary, no one else has put those pieces together in as simple and comprehensive a package.
As music services go, Spotify is a bit of a hybrid. As long as you’re connected to the Internet, most songs are streamed, meaning that they aren’t hogging space on your device. The premium tier adds the option of saving songs locally, so they’re available even if you’re on an airplane, subway or somewhere else without Internet service. Those songs go away if you drop your Spotify subscription.
I started by installing Spotify’s player software on the Mac where I also keep my iTunes library. Spotify gave me the option of incorporating those purchased songs into its library too; I opted to bring only some of my playlists, encompassing several hundred cuts. The playlists promptly showed up on all the other devices on which I had the software or app installed.
In cases where a track existed in Spotify’s catalog, it matched up its in-the-cloud copy with mine, making the song instantly streamable on all my devices. For music that the service didn’t have, I had to go through a somewhat laborious process of putting both my computer and mobile device on the same Wi-Fi network, opening the software on both and marking the playlist to copy over the missing music.
For me, the real benefit of Spotify is in all those millions of tracks that I didn’t already own. I can play them one-off, or organize my favorites into new playlists I can share with other Spotify users via Facebook or Twitter.
You’ll surely find music that appeals to you. Don’t, though, expect to find everything. For instance, like every other legal source of tracks except iTunes, it is BYOB -- Bring Your Own Beatles. Other old-school holdouts like Led Zeppelin and Metallica are missing too.
There are also holes in the catalogues of more recent, more download-friendly artists. For instance, I was able to find multiple versions of Jason Mraz’s 2008 hit, “I’m Yours,” but only a single live version of his 2002 “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry).” Spotify did provide a couple of karaoke versions, in case I wanted to sing along. I didn’t.
On the other hand, the service has an impressive collection of tracks from niche sources and artists who might be a little outside the pop mainstream.
A colleague was pleased to get hard-to-find tracks from favorite performers like James Blake, Nite Jewel and DaM-FunK. Myself, I was able to find remembered jazz chestnuts from artists like Ramsey Lewis and Vince Guaraldi, as well as a good deal of Mississippi bluesman Johnny Rawls.
The digital-music market is undergoing its biggest changes since the opening of the iTunes Store in 2003. Services like Rhapsody, Grooveshark, Rdio and Pandora have all carved out nooks for themselves. Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc. both recently launched online-storage music services and Apple is about to revamp ITunes to be more cloud-centric.
Even in this crowded field, Spotify stands out for its flexibility, depth and ease of use. It’s one of those cases where the mystique is well-deserved.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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