By July 29, 2011

Spotify Initial Impressions

I’ve been using Spotify for about two weeks. Right now the free version of the service is invitation only, and as such a lot of my friends have been asking what Spotify is, if it’s worth paying for additional levels of service, and how it compares to Pandora.

What Is Spotify?

Spotify is an Internet-based streaming music service. It is considered “on-demand,” which means that you can listen to specific songs or albums when you want to. Spotify was started in Sweden in 2008, but is just now coming to the United States.

There are three service levels: free, unlimited, and premium. The naming is kind of silly, as premium actually gives you unlimited features and access.

  1. Free allows you to listen to music at lower audio quality and you have to listen to some advertisements. For now, you can listen to as much music per month as you want but this will change at some point to 20 hours for an initial period, and then only ten hours a month (see this PC Mag article for more information).

    This level of service is only available in the United States during Spotify’s promotional launch period.

  2. Unlimited access is $4.99 a month. The only difference between Unlimited and Free/Open access is that you get unlimited playtime every month. I think this is a poor halfway point between free and premium.
  3. Premium is really the only usable plan Spotify offers. It is $9.99 a month. Premium has no playtime limits, features higher audio quality, and can be played on any major mobile device like your Android OS phone or iPhone. It also has an offline mode for up to 3,333 tracks of your choice.

    I subscribed to the Premium model because I wanted to listen to Spotify in my car and on my motorcycle, just like I do with Pandora or Amazon’s MP3 Cloud service. The Android app is more difficult to use than either Pandora or the Amazon Cloud apps. It seems to be the best out of the three in handling spotty network connectivity. I don’t know if the bitrate is lower (thus making it easier to download music when network speeds are low) or if the app has a big cache, or both. I may do a longer write-up in the future, but for now let’s just say the interface is okay and the reliability of the service is pretty good on the road.

    Offline mode is interesting, especially if you travel a lot or live in an area with poor mobile phone service. My previous employer was near the airport, and the mobile phone network coverage was terrible. There were several well-defined spots on campus where I couldn’t listen to music. Spotify’s offline listening mode allows you to download music to any device associated with your account. In my case, that’s my desktop computer and my HTC Incredible Android phone. It’s easy to enable offline mode — just flip a little switch icon in the Spotify desktop client.

Regardless of service level, you can post your listening history to Facebook or Twitter. You can also suggest music to your friends, which is kind of neat. My friend Nico sent me a track by an artist he thought I would like, and I did the same.

How is Spotify Different From Pandora?

This is second most popular question I get from people. I think it’s because I love Pandora so much and I am a big advocate of their Pandora One premium service.

As of this writing, most music consumption in the United States is through some variant of the disc jockey method, wherein a service provider dictates what music you listen to. Think of terrestrial radio or XM/Sirius, where you tune into a “station” and they play music that fits a genre or suite of genres.

Pandora is a variation on this theme: you can help shape the music you listen to by seeding “stations” with artists and tracks that you like, and/or by indicating if you like or dislike specific songs. However, if you want to listen to “Beyond Raging Waters” by DJ Krush right now, right away, then traditional media delivery isn’t going to do much for you.

Think of Spotify (and similar services, like Grooveshark, Last.fm or Microsoft’s Zune Pass) as a jukebox. You search through their online music library and play a track, just like you might scroll through a catalog on a jukebox.

Pandora is a suggestion engine. It tries to suggest music that you might like based on information about songs it knows you already like. Pandora’s suggestion service has introduced me to a TON of artists I love, including Pendulum, Infected Mushroom, Panjabi MC, and Skrillex. I am fairly versed on electronica music, but Pandora’s dedicated Dubstep station has helped me discover a genre I was only tangentially aware of.

Which is Better?

That’s been the biggest question yet. At first my answer was complicated. I tried to distill the different services down to a single recommendation, similar to this comparo on The Next Web. I ran a mental decision tree during my conversations, hoping to divine some sort of golden recommendation at the end.

I soon gave up on this approach.

Here’s the bottom line: Pandora is a bad ass radio station that personalizes its track list to you and introduces you to music that you might like. It’s worth it, and I encourage you to support their Pandora One program for a paltry $3/month. Spotify is a bad ass Internet jukebox that lets you control the music you listen to.

They serve two totally different purposes. It’s like trying to decide if a pickup truck is better than a sports car. One hauls a lot of stuff, the other hauls a lot of ass.

When people ask me which one is better, I recommend both. I am spending about 30% of my time on Pandora, as Spotify enables me to directly explore the discographies of artists Pandora introduced me to years ago. One example is Future Prophecies, a group that released one album in 2005. I’ve only heard two tracks from this album via Pandora, and now Spotify lets me listen to the entire record.

So far people have nodded their head, then ask this question:

Is Spotify Worth the Price?

This is especially relevant if you are combining Spotify with another service, like Sirius/XM or Pandora. If you couple Pandora and Spotify Premium you’re staring at $12.99 a month for music that you don’t own. That’s about one album a month, and if Pandora or Spotify shut down then you won’t have access to the music you’ve been paying for. I have albums that I purchased in 1991 and I’ve ripped them to my home file server. This type of archiving isn’t possible with a streaming music service, and you have to consider if “retaining” the music is worth enough to you to buy albums. In my case, I listen to so much music in different genres that the $13/month is worth it.

If you’re a parent and have near-teen or older kids living with you, a Spotify membership might be a good financial move for a few reasons. People currently acquire music in one of four ways:

  1. Buy albums in meatspace (CDs) or digitally (iTunes, Amazon, etc). Often this is just for one or two tracks, but you pay for the full album. $10 – $15. Unless you like import music like me, then you’re at $25+ for some albums.
  2. Buy singles digitally. $0.69 – $1.29 each.
  3. Gifts. I don’t remember the last time someone gave me music, but younger people might get iTunes gift cards or physical albums.
  4. Piracy. This is the thing that would freak me out if I were a parent these days. It’s super easy to steal music online, and next thing you know you’re staring down a copyright infringement suit. If the John Doe mass joinder scheme continues parents might start getting $1500 settlement demands for something their kid snagged on a torrent. $1500 to a buttload of money.

Spotify basically removes the reasons for piracy: that albums are too expensive, that albums have inconsistent quality (one good song, the rest suck), artists release too much music in an effort to make as much money as possible, overseas music is too hard to find in US stores, etc etc etc.

Conclusion

Yes, Spotify (or similar service) is worth it. I’m not sure if I will keep my Spotify sub going or move on to an alternative like Grooveshark, but the concept is solid.

My main complaint about Spotify in particular is that their library isn’t fully fleshed out. For example, I want to listen to more Pomplamoose but I don’t like iTunes and they aren’t on Amazon’s MP3 catalog. Unfortunately, most of their music isn’t on Spotify, either. Drag. Some of my other favorite artists only have partial representation on Spotify. I haven’t been with Spotify long enough to know how frequently they add music, but at least they seem more current than Pandora, an issue I addressed last November.

The Spotify user interface is crazy messed up, but I’m going to save that for another review.

Spotify Free is currently invite-only, but I still have a few invites left over as of this writing. Give it a try, keeping in mind that you’re going to have to pony up $10 a month if you want mobile phone support or legitimate listening time.

Strongly recommended.

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1 Comment on "Spotify Initial Impressions"

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  1. ecurb says:

    My parents laid down the law about piracy: don’t do anything that can be traced back to this house.
    I didn’t mind, as I spent a lot of time in the local library anyway!

    I found a pandora subscription well worth the money, although the audio quality isn’t appreciably better on my terrible gear.