I've been reading good buzz about Spotify for several months now, but the noise seems to have reached a fever pitch with recent coverage by music industry blogger Bob Lefsetz and Sunday's announcement that the new U2 album, "No Line on the Horizon," is available on Spotify in several European countries right now--a week before its official worldwide release date of March 2.
Some quick background: the promise of Spotify is music, on-demand, from any computer with an Internet connection. Which sounds a lot like Rhapsody, Napster, Microsoft's Zune Pass, or any other of the countless subscription-based services that have come and gone...except that there's a free ad-supported version. Sort of like what Qtrax was promising, only with streams instead of downloads (and actually available instead of merely promised). Or perhaps sort of like Imeem, only without the confusing attention-deficit-disorder interface.
Or--let's be honest here--like all the dearly departed P2P services of yesteryear, only legal with partners including the four major labels plus independent digital distributors CD Baby and The Orchard. Songs are encoded in the Ogg Vorbis codec, which offers higher quality-per-bitrate than MP3, and distributed on demand using the Torrent protocol.
But of course there's a catch: Spotify is only available in some European countries, and the free version is invite-only, which has made me skeptical. It's like hearing stories about some magical land far away where fairies deliver golden music directly to your earbuds.
My curiosity got the best of me, and I finally wrangled an invitation to the beta version of the free service. I'm happy to report it works exactly as advertised and is unquestionably the best music service I've ever used.
Apart from finally delivering the promise of on-demand music that I've been waiting for since the first time I listened to an audio stream over the Web in 1996 or so, the Spotify designers must be praised for designing a beautifully simple and functional piece of software that combines the best of online and offline so you don't know (or care) which is which.
Playlists and searches are saved, so you don't have to retrace your steps. Apparently they're going to insert audio advertisements into the service, but I didn't hear any. (I'll post an update when I hear back from the company on this.)
Most amazingly, there's no lag time. You click on a song and it starts playing immediately. It launches so much faster than iTunes (and don't get me started on the Zune client, which gives you long enough to make an espresso while you wait for it to launch), and songs play so quickly, I'd favor it even for songs that are already on my hard drive.
The only flaw is song selection. Apparently, Spotify had to take some songs down because of the licensing deals it signed with the majors, and consequently there are some big gaps. No Zeppelin, no Beatles, the only Pink Floyd album available is the execrable live "Pulse," and Radiohead is limited (weirdly) to "Kid A" and a greatest-hits record from the band's EMI days.
But it found everything else I was looking for: extensive catalogs for David Bowie, Charles Mingus, Brian Eno, Iron Maiden, and The Rolling Stones; lost classic rock hits (UFO's "Love to Love," Blue Oyster Cult's "I Love the Night," Jeff Beck's "Bolero"); obscure dub act Scientist; plenty of Aphex Twin; Amon Tobin's "Foley Room"...you get the idea.
Your mileage may vary, but once Spotify gets its licensing on par with iTunes and the other online streaming services, and as long as the audio ads aren't too frequent or annoying, I don't see how Spotify can lose.
So why is it not available in the U.S., and when's it coming? I'll let you know what I hear back.
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