Why Spotify Hits the Spot

ImageI spent a few years around the turn of the millennium on the technology beat for a music-biz trade magazine. During that time, as visionary theorists dreamed of a frictionless "celestial jukebox," I saw a lot of gizmos and applications come and go.

But every once in a while something emerged that genuinely looked like a game-changer. I was the first journalist to correctly predict that Apple's pending mystery product, a subject of crazed speculation, would be a thing called the iPod (yes, I had a source). And its unveiling made clear that Cupertino was poised to transform the way people consume music.

But what, since then, has changed the game? Not much (though I'd nominate Pandora, the remarkably supple streaming radio that extrapolates a playlist from user preferences).

Now Spotify is upon us, and even casual social-media users have no doubt been splashed by the hype, some of which is gathered on the Spotify site. "Makes music fun again," burbled Billboard.biz. "Blows the doors off of anything on the market," proclaimed the Los Angeles Times. "Genius," declared, um, Demi Moore (that's @mrskutcher to YOU). But what is it? How does it work? And is it truly the beans?

Spawned by a Swedish company in 2008 and implemented in various European countries in the intervening years, this streaming-music service is only now reaching our shores. Its interface resembles an iTunes window, and for good reason; Spotify syncs with your iTunes and iPod.

But the big leap is that it enables you to stream music you own and music you don't through the same player. Which means if the only Joni Mitchell album in your collection is Blue, you can type "Joni Mitchell" in the search window and stream alongside it other masterpieces like Court and Spark, Ladies of the Canyon and Hejira (or, if you're feeling adventurous, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter and Mingus). Each track or album can then be dropped into an iTunes playlist.

 

The big leap is that it enables you to stream music you own and music you don't through the same player.

Although the music selection yielded by a Spotify search isn't utterly comprehensive (and some music — a couple of Deep Purple albums, for example — is tantalizingly listed but not streamable due to regional licensing obstacles), it is staggeringly large; it includes classics in all genres as well as new releases, and its "share" feature lets users enjoy others' playlists (and brandish their own) via a Facebook plug-in.

Until now, when you wanted to check out an album online but weren't necessarily prepared to buy it, you had a few flawed options: Stream 30-second samples of each track on a retail site like Amazon; try to download it from a dodgy P2P site; or attempt to locate every cut as a clip on YouTube.

With Spotify, that album is streaming by the time you've finished typing its title. Thus my speakers have been suffering from the bends, blasting Foster the People, Judas Priest, XTC, Mountain, Judee Sill, Dennis Wilson, the Red Button, Old Californio and Daryl Hall's weird, Robert Fripp-produced solo album, Sacred Songs, among other decidedly miscellaneous material.

Of course, the free version of Spotify has its limitations: Playback is periodically interrupted by rather obnoxious commercials; sound quality varies. Fervent criticism, meanwhile, has surrounded the compensation of independent artists. Paying a monthly fee for the premium version resolves the advertising and sound-quality issues nicely (and also enables mobile and offline listening).

ImageAdam Clyne, a commercial director at the British communications agency TVC Group (Coca-Cola, Burberry, Ralph Lauren) and sometime Spotify evangelist, settled on the paid version (as have I). His enthusiasm for what he calls "an unlimited music reference" reflects a paradigm shift that's been occurring, ever so slowly, among consumers (and has understandably prompted much agita in the music business). "I got to the stage a few years ago when I was no longer bothered about owning music," he volunteers. "As a teenager I enjoyed collecting CDs. But in this digital age, there's no point buying tracks when you can simply rent them."

We all seem to desire in our musical diet a balance of choice and chance (hearing a long-forgotten gem on the radio, an event so thrilling that you sit in the driveway until the song is over despite the fact that you could just go in the house and put it on). Between Pandora and Spotify, this can be achieved virtually anywhere. The services get paid, at least some money goes to the artists and it's all above board. And I can listen to six hours of assorted Blondie from anywhere with an Internet connection.

It may not be perfect, but Spotify brings us considerably closer to that celestial jukebox we've been promised for nearly two decades.

Still, I, for one, am not quite ready to give up owning music. Especially since the mailman just delivered the new Red Button album — on vinyl. Nothing sounds better, and my copy of the record is autographed. No digital delivery can touch that.