The much-ballyhooed subscription service is about to launch this week. Or next month. Or not. As a free service. Or only paid. Maybe. Amid all the uncertainty, Billboard plugged in its earbuds to find out if Spotify is actually worth waiting for.
In the United States, the streaming music service Spotify is more myth than reality. Few people here have used the service-apart from a handful of Kool-Aid-glugging bloggers and biz types-while more than 10 million people in seven European countries are registered users. Based in the United Kingdom, with R&D in Sweden, Spotify has created such a buzz overseas that American digital media outlets track the company as if its postmark was Cupertino. Each week brings new, feverish speculation that Spotify, which is still negotiating deals with the major U.S. record companies, is about to launch and blow up the marketplace.
It's the next big thing that almost no one has experienced.
People often ask me if I've used Spotify, and, if so, whether it lives up to its hype. The answers are "yes"-it's my job, after all-and "hell yes." To people bred on the ease of iTunes downloads and wary of subscription services, my keenness for Spotify may come as a surprise. And without actually using it, people may have a difficult time understanding what makes it special. It's hard to describe some of its small, yet important, aspects.
Eventually I usually tell them that Spotify makes music fun again, just like the iPod did nearly 10 years ago.
I've been using the Spotify desktop application for more than a year and the mobile app for a few weeks. There was hardly a learning curve. It has never crashed. It has rarely disappointed. The sound quality is more than adequate. Songs stream at 160 kbps, and temporary downloads can be as high as 320 kbps (160 kbps on the mobile device).
In Europe, Spotify has three versions: a free, ad-supported version; a €4.99 ($6.91) PC-only version; and a €9.99 ($13.83) premium version that adds mobile access to the PC version. The company says it has more than 500,000 paying customers, although it doesn't break down PC-only and premium users.
In the United States, such competitors as Rhapsody, MOG and Rdio charge now-standard prices of $5 for PC access and $10 for mobile. When Spotify launches stateside-"by the end of the year" continues to be the company line-it's likely to have this standard pricing as well. Less likely, but possible, is a free, ad-supported version. U.S. executives have been burned by ad-supported services-the late imeem, MySpace Music-and could be hesitant to allow a free version onto these shores.
So what should you expect as a potential user once the company finally throws the switch stateside? Here's how Billboard scores Spotify in seven crucial categories: design, speed, social, offline listening, mobile app, the "lean back" experience and catalog.
Like an Apple product, Spotify is more than just a collection of functions and features. It's well-thought-out and well-executed.
"It's actually very easy to create a different thing," Apple senior VP of industrial design Jonathan Ive says in the book "Deconstructing Product Design." A number of clunky and unsuccessful MP3 players preceded the iPod, but it was different, Ive says, because Apple strived to make it such a simple device.
That simplicity makes Spotify intuitive. The desktop client will be familiar to anyone who has used iTunes. The left sidebar houses a list of playlists-the dominant organizational mode on Spotify-as well as main features like the inbox, starred items (selected as favorites) and a link back to the home screen. The design is relatively sparse and utilitarian. There aren't any bells and whistles that distract the user or the service from the task of efficiently organizing, sharing and listening to music.
Spotify's design succeeds because the company understands that less is more. It may have north of 10 million songs, but it doesn't force-feed all that music. The service offers numerous ways to find music-search, radio, sharing with friends-but it doesn't clutter pages with charts, genre lists and other information. It does have "top song" and "top album" lists but none organized by genre, staff picks or editorial.
Other services tout this type of hand-holding. Spotify succeeds without it.
Speed matters. Steve Jobs famously drove his engineers to lower the startup time of the Macintosh computers. He knew a shorter wait would result in a more valuable product.
Spotify is the fastest music service on the market. Even the mobile app is noticeably faster than its competitors. Fast page loads and quick download times mean less time spent waiting and more time listening.
When I read that Spotify's premium users outside of the United Kingdom were given a one-week head start on the new Kings of Leon  album, "Come Around Sundown," I opened the Spotify app on my iPod Touch, searched for the album, added the entire set as a playlist and then downloaded the 13 songs to the device over a Wi-Fi network. From start to finish the entire process took far less than a minute.
Spotify's speed is most noticeable when clicking on a track or an album. The audio stream starts almost immediately. Other services have a noticeable lag time. It's a small difference, but multiply that small difference by a few hundred track selections and it becomes the difference between good and great.
Other examples of Spotify's speed are the lists of the top 100 tracks, albums and artists for any Spotify territory. Select a country and the list of songs instantly falls into place. The list is laid out with the no-frills efficiency of Craigslist, a website that has also traded flash for effectiveness.
Spotify was built with sharing in mind, co-founder Daniel Ek has often said.
It shows. Songs and playlists can be shared through Facebook, Twitter and Messenger with just a few clicks. Songs shared between friends on Spotify end up in the inbox.
In fact, an entire cottage industry has sprouted up around Spotify playlists. Through a link at the company's blog, I found a 179-track playlist of '80s songs at a site called Share My Playlists that allows people to do just that with their Spotify creations. It had less-celebrated songs by Madness and Tears for Fears, hits like the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue" and ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man" and lots of early-'80s R&B like Levert's "Cassanova."
A handful of ancillary sites-Spotify Playlists, Spotify Lists and Spotify Share among them-allow people to post their playlists. At Spotify Share, I ran across a playlist with 508 rock and indie songs from the last 10 years. With a click of the "subscribe" button the playlist was added to my collection and instantly appeared in my mobile app's playlist section. If U.S. music blogs started posting such playlists, music discovery in this country
would be taken to a new level.
MOBILE APP: A-
Spotify's mobile app is a natural extension of the desktop application.
Completing tasks requires little time and is extremely intuitive. It's easy to select playlists, add tracks or albums to playlists, share songs and navigate from one thing to another.
U.K. users can stream music over a cellular network. Here, I use it on my iPod Touch, which means I can't stream music just anywhere. To listen to songs while offline, I've stored tracks from about a dozen of my 50 or so playlists.
Spotify allows mobile users to store up to 3,333 songs for offline use.
OFFLINE LISTENING: B+
Like other music services, Spotify allows for "offline caching"-a euphemism for tracks protected by digital rights management that are downloaded from a subscription service.
Offline caching is especially handy on mobile devices. While connected to a Wi-Fi signal, I can stream anything in Spotify's catalog. But when away from a signal, offline caching comes in handy. Plus, tracks on my hard drive that aren't in Spotify's licensed catalog can also be stored on my device.
Using the desktop application, I added those unlicensed tracks to what Spotify calls a "local files" folder. This allows my unlicensed songs to be integrated into a Spotify catalog. Without this feature, Spotify couldn't be a one-stop music player. Mash-ups and songs from many independent artists' websites aren't usually licensed to music services. And in the music business, people are often listening to advance music that has yet to hit stores.
THE 'LEAN BACK' EXPERIENCE: C+
Radio is now a standard feature of music services, and Spotify has its own.
The PC application offers two ways to enjoy a "lean back" listening experience: a flexible radio function and an artist radio function. The mobile app has neither. (Unlike noninteractive services like Pandora, a Spotify user can skip back to previous tracks and skip around within a song.)
Spotify's radio screen offers users lists of genres and decades. Users can select as many genres as they like but only one decade. Choosing "new wave" and " '80s" brought up Adam & the Ants' "Mohawk" followed by David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" and Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls."
A recent listen to Lou Reed's artist page offered a surprise: The second song played was Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen," in between Reed's "Berlin" and "Think It Over." Surprisingly, it worked: The song's chugging guitar riffs bear a striking resemblance to the propulsive rhythms on the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat."
The radio feature is merely average, but it comes with a caveat: It doesn't matter. Like most other on-demand services, with MOG being the exception, Spotify doesn't specialize in radio-like features. And it isn't expected to.
For this U.S.-based user, Spotify's U.K. catalog is both brimming (many releases not available stateside) and lacking (a lot of independent U.S. artists are missing).
The catalog is missing the occasional hit. On the Official Charts Co.'s top 40 tally for Oct. 16, two tracks weren't available on Spotify: Katy B's "Katy B on a Mission" and the Wombats' "Tokyo (Vampires & Wolves)." But all of that week's U.K. top 40 albums were available.
At more than 10 million tracks, and despite a few holes, the U.K. catalog meets the threshold expected of an unlimited music service.
Spotify's strengths combine into a different value proposition than other music services. Competitors tend to boast about the size of their catalog and their tools that help users make sense of their massive amount of music.
In contrast, Spotify assumes what people want most is a fast and easy-to-use product. That approach makes the service the best way to listen to music.
Being best in class doesn't necessarily mean Spotify will be able to lead a music subscription revolution in the United States. One user's must-have product is often 20 others' waste of money. Given their limited success, subscription services' viability and their ability to compete with free options are still questionable.
And it's not like Spotify is without competition. Rhapsody has an established user base that gives it stability. MOG has a great product that creates artist playlists and allows users to fine-tune their desired level of discovery. Rdio's clever use of social features and easy-to-use interface make it an excellent tool for collecting and discovering music. Thumbplay offers similar PC and mobile offerings.
And additional competitors are expected soon. Both Google and Apple are reportedly planning subscription services. Google appears to be further along and has already made some key hires. Both companies have the ability to create a game-changing service that will push subscriptions from niche status to mainstream product.
For Spotify to succeed, it will need to become a top-three service in a subscription market far larger than exists today. Such services require massive scale to be profitable. Content owners will take the majority of their revenue. Marketing to those apart from the earliest of adopters is expensive. And running an infrastructure capable of providing a seamless music service has its costs. With luck, a little money will be left over for continual product innovation that will keep the service relevant with consumers. After all, good programmers don't come cheap.
Spotify could very well make its biggest impact if allowed to operate a free, ad-supported service. The goal is to reach a tipping point where it becomes the standard platform for sharing and discovering music-a free version would help it attract a maximum number of users. Content owners, however, may decide what's best for Spotify isn't in their best interest.
What happens in the subscription market is distinct from the quality of any one service. Without a doubt, Spotify is the best subscription service on the market today. It has set the bar high for current and future competitors. It's so good, in fact, that mainstream acceptance of subscription services doesn't seem so far out of reach.
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