Spotify launched in the U.S., I signed up for a Premium account for $10 per month. Now that I’m nearing the two-month membership mark, I’m familiar enough with the service to share some thoughts. I should start by noting that I’m not the type of person who regularly signs up for paid services. I don’t even subscribe to a cable TV package.
So why do I think Spotify Premium is worth the price of admission?
First and foremost, access to millions upon millions of tracks. While my musical tastes tend toward the eclectic and obscure, I’ve been able to find most of what I was looking for. Second, the Premium service allows me to stream all the content I can reasonably consume, without ads, on my Mac or on my iPhone. Third, Premium serves up higher-quality audio. Fourth, I can cache songs for offline listening, useful for my daily train commute through farm country with spotty 3G service. And, finally, I can listen to most of my iTunes music on-the-go (provided I have a connection), as Spotify reads what I own and matches what it can with copies in the cloud.
Spotify is a different sort of service from that of Pandora or Last.fm. It’s better suited for people who know what they want, or at least are willing to take the time to explore. While there is an 'Artist Radio' function to stream similar artists, it’s not a well-promoted feature. To be honest, I didn't even notice this feature for the first month and have never had the urge to use it. Instead, I tend to seek out a specific artist, then choose from a list of Spotify-suggested related artists. This often leads to uncharted territory and new artist discoveries. I like it because I feel that I am in direct control of the discovery process.
Unfortunately, all that I just described in the previous paragraph is available only on the desktop. The iPhone app is geared towards playing tracks already lined up in a playlist, with the exception of seeking out a specific artist, album, or track. In other words, I can search the Spotify database from the iPhone, but I have to know what I’m looking for. There is no ‘Artist Radio' streaming option and no ‘Related Artists’ category on the mobile app. That’s a shame.
As I mentioned earlier, Spotify allows syncing of tracks from iTunes. The promise is that this will mostly alleviate the need to fire up the other music platform. I’ve found this to be largely true. While the service only syncs non-DRM protected music from an iTunes library, that’s not that big of a deal. I can always search out those missing files from Spotify’s database, provided they’re available.
I can also listen to most of my iTunes library on my iPhone or iPad without worrying about managing playlists due to limited storage space (provided I don’t overdo it with offline caching). Spotify automatically matches the tunes in my iTunes library with online versions in Spotify’s massive database. It’s seamless.
Unfortunately, a fair number of my more obscure tracks and albums aren’t available in Spotify’s database. If I want these tracks to be available, I have to choose to sync them locally for offline listening. I’ve also noticed that some of my iTunes tracks appear on my phone with little link symbols. I had to look up what this meant. It indicates that (for some reason) the version of the song that I own isn’t available to play in my country, so Spotify has substituted it for a playable version.
I admit I am mystified as to why some material isn’t in the Spotify catalog, and why some tracks or albums are not available to U.S. customers. I'm sure it’s based on agreements that Spotify has worked out with labels, but it can be frustrating because it can be so ... random. For instance, when I first started the service I downloaded ‘De Stilj’ by the White Stripes. A day later, this album vanished from my playlist. That album is no longer available to stream in the U.S. However, all other White Stripes albums are available. In terms of explanation, all I get from Spotify is a notice that the tracks ‘are not currently available in the United States.’ I can only imagine the convoluted paperwork that Spotify legal is juggling to keep this service going, so this isn’t really a complaint. I'm impressed that they got it off the ground at all. I’m just a bit miffed that I can’t stream some albums and tracks that I’d like to hear. Oddly, I've even come across many cases where all but one or two songs on a given album are available to stream. What's so special about those songs? Arg!
Another example: The first disc of ‘Brewing Up With Billy Bragg,’ circa 1984, is available if you search for it via the Spotify desktop app. However, the second disc in this two-disc set is unavailable in the U.S. How odd. Worse, if I search for this album via the iPhone app, the album doesn't appear at all. And a minor annoyance: that Billy Bragg album shows up as published in 2006. I’m guessing that’s a re-release date. I’ve found this time and again with albums I’ve sought out. The years don't match up with actual release dates. I’ve also found that the same album often appears many times over in search results, but I can only listen to one of those albums in my country. I surmise that there are different licensed versions for different regions of the world. It would be nice to have the option within Spotify’s preferences to hide the albums and tracks that I can’t stream. It’s the same thing to me as if those tracks and albums didn't exist at all, so I don't want to see them.
Functionally speaking, the desktop and mobile Spotify apps work quite well, with a few caveats regarding playlists. The main problem I’ve encountered is that the service doesn’t import smart playlists from iTunes, which is how nearly all of my nearly 8,000 files in iTunes are organized. The remedy for this, of course, is to make new playlists. It's a simple task to copy and paste the contents of a smart playlist into a 'dumb' playlist within iTunes, and then import that. But that's annoying. And speaking of smart playlists, Spotify absolutely needs some sort of intelligent playlist functionality to sort through and categorize Spotify music. Dumb playlists just don’t cut it.
Here’s a round-up of what I’d like to see in future Spotify app releases:
- More social sharing options. Right now, it’s only Facebook. I have no urge to share anything with Facebook. Actually, I'm not sure I'm inclined to share my personal music library via any service, but I'm sure that many users would appreciate greater choice.
- Tooltips. The meaning of some of Spotify's color-coding and iconography isn't always obvious. Simple tooltips would help.
- It would be nice to have ‘Related Artists’ and ‘Artist Radio’ on the mobile app.
- I would appreciate the option to hide music that is not available for my country. I only want to see it if I can stream it.
- Smart playlists: the ability to import from iTunes, and to create within Spotify. Perhaps there may be patent/legal issues here to prevent some of this functionality, but surely Spotify could devise some sort of ‘intelligent’ playlist capability. It’s an all-you-can-eat music service, so we need better organization options.
- The user interface isn’t always intuitive. For instance, on the desktop app, you can’t get more information about an artist, or seek more albums/tracks from an artist, by selecting the artist name from within one of your playlists. You have to enter the name in the search box. When you do search for and select an artist, Spotify returns an interface with four tabs: an Overview, Biography, Related Artists, and Artist Radio. Maybe it's just me, but I didn’t even notice the tabs at first. Oddly, the main window (the artist ‘Overview’ tab) displays the beginning sentence or two of the artist biography and a short list of a few related artists. Since there's not much space here, only a fraction of the biography and related artists are visible, yet you can’t select one of these items to access the full bio or related artist entries. You just get to see a tiny fraction of the content. There isn't even an option to scroll through the rest of the content. The only way to access this content is to select one of the tabs. Check out the screenshot below to see what I mean. Why not link the short blurbs on the 'Overview' page to the sub-tabs for Biography and Related Artists?
The odd Spotify 'Overview' PaneMy overall experience? I love it. Prior to Spotify, I had hundreds of dollars of albums in my ‘Wish List’ basket in iTunes. Now I’m listening to all of those albums. Yes, I’m paying $120 dollars a year for the privilege, but I’m consuming far more music than I ever could afford to buy outright. My interest in discovering new artists is greater than it has been since I was in my 20s. Now when I learn of an interesting new artist or album, I don’t have to read second-hand reviews or settle for short previews. And I don’t have to add items to a ‘Wish List.’ I just cue it up and experience it for myself. If I don’t like it, I can just as easily remove it. It’s a liberating experience.
On the flip side, unlimited and instant access to millions of tracks means that it's easy to listen for one minute and then dump an album. Too easy. If I paid for an album, I would never do this. I'd listen to it over and over. I try to keep this habit with Spotify. Sure, I may still not like an album after a few listens. More often, though, I only begin to appreciate and enjoy an album after several weeks or months. Spotify's all-you-can-eat buffet can destroy this practiced patience if you let it.
At any rate, I'm enjoying the service. Still, I am trying to keep my tracks well organized should I someday wish to cancel my subscription. What if fees get too steep? What if label agreements break down and the catalog drastically shrinks in size? My strategy is to carefully cultivate what I really like through playlists and by ‘starring’ favorites. Should I need to leave and return to iTunes, I’ll have a good idea of which artist albums and tracks I want to buy and which I can do without.
Of course, I hope that day won’t arrive anytime soon. I'd love to see Spotify-like models appear for other content. I would consider signing up for similar services for audiobook, digital magazines, and ebook subscriptions. Hhave you heard the rumor that Amazon.com may soon roll out ebook rentals?