Music service Spotify’s long-awaited US launch finally happened in the past week, and courtesy of Bob Lefsetz, I was afforded an invitation to use the service. After spending a few days tinkering with it, I thought I’d record my thoughts.
For those who are blissfully unaware, Spotify is a new streaming music service. They boast of having “all the world’s music” in their catalog* available for listening anytime, anywhere. Want to relive your youth to that Aldo Nova track you’ve not heard since back in the day? Search for “Aldo Nova,” and bathe in the ability to queue-up any of his releases on-demand. With a paid subscription, you gain the ability to load-up your mobile device with a bunch of music, and enjoy it on-the-go without the need for a data connection. It sounds like nirvana for most music lovers, and indeed, the service has been wildly successful in its home country of Europe. (Read more on their web site if you’re still confused.)
So what are the ups and downs?
- There are serious holes. *In other words, it’s not “all the world’s music” by any stretch of the imagination. The service does have most of the material offered by the major labels, and a shocking amount of indie material; pretty much any independent release that has used an aggregator (such as Tunecore, IODA, CD Baby, etc.) to release their material to retail. That’s a crapload of music by any measure.But for dance music lovers like me, more of my favorite artists and producers are missing than are represented based on the searches I’ve conducted. Much dance music is either unreleased, is indie, or is import, and Spotify can’t do much with music that’s only been offered to DJs and not made available to the pubic.
As for imports, this has been the bane of many a music lover since the dawn of the Internet drove awareness of what we’re missing out on. Like retail, Spotify is beholden to territorial issues revolving around copyright and the way that many labels choose to release music. Most European labels prefer to license tracks to a US label to release here (it works the other way too), vs. selling the material directly worldwide. If no US label bites, it’s not available here (except, perhaps, to DJs). None of this sort of content is on Spotify, nor is anything to speak of in foreign language. I’m a fan of several Dutch recording artists, none of it’s released here (most Americans have no interest in Dutch-language music), and consequently, none of it (or very little) is on Spotify.
- On the up side, back in the days of the original Napster and original Audiogalaxy, I had enormous amounts of fun with “music discovery.” Rediscovering long-forgotten artists and tracks, and discovering literally dozens, if not hundreds of artists I’d never heard of to begin with. Spotify brings back this process of musical discovery. When you find an artist you’re looking for, Spotify shows “similar artists,” whose music you can then listen to in full. (There’s also social media integration to help this along.) And when looking for certain singles to listen to, I’ve found albums I didn’t know existed. It’s been amazing hearing fresh new-to-me-yet-quite-old music again, resurrecting the real joy (for me) of Napster back in the day.Related to this point, Spotify has already resulted in my buying a ton of music on iTunes. I can’t remember when I last bought albums; it’s been years. And here I am, finding new/old albums on Spotify, and going and buying them. I love it. Many users will simply pay for Spotify and listen as much as they want without buying; I prefer not being tied to any specific platform, or the need to keep paying for the service indefinitely to enjoy specific music.
- On the down side, it just doesn’t work that well. Spotify utilizes a peer-to-peer underlying infrastructure, and like any peer-to-peer, it works and it doesn’t. Most things play immediately, yes. Many don’t seem to actually play at all, seemingly mostly more obscure tracks. Strangely, some of the in-stream advertising spots don’t play either, and you cannot bypass them and play something else when they don’t. The Spotify client very frequently just sits there, playing nothing, until I exit and restart the application, at which point my play queue is gone. For a service that’s accepting paying customers, and which has been running in Europe for years now, you’d think that the kinks would already have been worked-out. They haven’t been, and I’d be reluctant to pay for a service that frequently just stops working.
- Much has been said in music industry press about Spotify’s low rate of payment to record labels for the right to stream the tracks. It’s based on a revenue share model, and we’re ostensibly talking about fractions of pennies per play. The major labels eventually caved, but many independents are bemoaning Spotify and accusing it of aiding and abetting the killing of what’s left of the music business.With all due respect, I disagree. Piracy has already decimated the music business. Piracy pays zero. Spotify pays something, even if it’s only a little. Spotify pretty much removes the motivation to pirate material… If you can listen to anything, anywhere, anytime, why do you need to download a copy, or record the Spotify audio stream? It’s just a bunch of needless hassle. Of course, there will always be piracy, but personally, I’d rather have the possibility of some stream revenue, and what’s left of retail, than to have only what’s left of retail (which is dwindling by the day).
The truth is, success is the music business is elusive, and it always has been. Few have true breakthrough success, and that’s not any different today than it was 2 or 3 decades ago. What’s changed is that the barriers to entry have been removed, and most musicians seem to have an inflated sense of self-importance and relevance, believing they deserve to succeed where others apparently don’t. Like anything else, you have to work (hard) for it, and Spotify changes nothing about that dynamic other than affording many more people the opportunity to discover you. It’s still up to you to stand out and get noticed.
The music industry seems in most ways to be on its last legs. Is Spotify—or some other service along the same lines—the savior? Or merely the shadow of death in a new cloak? I certainly have no idea.
What I do know is that for me, even with its problems, even with its massive catalog holes, Spotify is a very cool service indeed to discover music I’ve not come across before, and an opportunity to hear that music, in-full, multiple times if needed, to assess its merits before laying down money buying an album with one or two good tracks. It’s like iTunes with full-length samples instead of stupid 30 or 90 second ones.
Will I sign-up for the paid version and carry my tunes around on my iPhone too? Not sure yet. But I’m intrigued…