Spotify: A love song

After what seems like an eternity, an awesome free streaming-music service has come along. But will it be taken away just as quickly as it's stumbled into one reporter's life?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

I have a love song to write. I don't know yet whether it will be a tragic ballad or an exuberant ode to the triumph of happiness. But it's a love song for sure: I have fallen for Spotify, the latest buzzworthy "free music" service. After months of trying to find a great way to find and listen to music online, I believe I have met my match.

No, Spotify technically isn't available in the U.S. just yet, though the U.K.-based company hopes to bring the software stateside by the end of the year. My acceptance of an invite code sent by a generous friend therefore may or may not have been in gross violation of some international laws or statutes or regulations. But that's OK. Spotify, we can have an illicit romance for now.

You see, I needed this in my life. I had been thinking about "music discovery" of late. Last week, at the tail end of a trip in which I had been covering Google's splashy Los Angeles debut of its music search service in partnership with MySpace and Lala, I was sitting in the lobby of the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood, a shameless hipster magnet designed in the manner of tacky Southwest-desert motels and which features a constant soundtrack of semi-edgy music picks from '90s-era Britpop to lo-fi and LCD Soundsystem remixes. As a parade of attractive, Sunset Strip rocker types drifted to the check-in desk, I was sitting next to a cactus, intermittently holding up my iPhone to a speaker, using audio-recognition app Shazam to find out exactly what was playing.

Considering the cooler-than-thou crowd, I probably looked awfully silly. But Shazam has been my preferred method of music discovery because I just haven't found anything else I really like. Queuing up a Pandora station makes for great party music, but I've never been enthralled by its recommendations for me. Music blog aggregator Hype Machine has very well-done charts to track the songs that are getting blogged and tweeted about the most, but they can be a little bit predictable once you've already listened to the latest mashup of Kanye West and MGMT. I use Last.fm, owned by CNET News parent company CBS, to tabulate listening-history charts, but have never found myself hooked by its recommendations or radio stations. (Sorry, bosses.)

Social music and discovery services are a mess, frankly. Some of them have terrible user interfaces, and others are slowly becoming the victim of poorly conceived business models (many of which relied too heavily on advertising strategies that have yet to bear fruit) and ill-fated licensing agreements with the major labels. Still others, in striving to get a leg up on competitors, veered into editorial curation--exclusive album-listening debuts, promotions and tie-ins, and the like. That can make for a whole lot of clutter.

Then along came my Spotify invite, and everything changed. The service makes no attempts on the surface to be an "influencer" in and of itself, instead just offering access to full-length streams of just about any song. That's daunting at first. When you first load up Spotify, you're greeted with basic top-music charts that are notably uninspiring (Black Eyed Peas? Kings of Leon?) and searches don't bring you anything other than, well, what you searched for. Social-networking features like Facebook and Twitter sharing are sparse and well-hidden. If you don't know where to look, it can be a little bit dull.

Instead, the "discovery" process is left up to third parties. Create a playlist on Spotify, and you can assign it an HTML address so that when people click on it (assuming they have Spotify accounts) the playlist will open right up. A popular U.K. music blog called Drowned in Sound has a feature called "Spotifridays," where a selection of popular music from that week is packaged into a Spotify playlist, eliminating the need to click around through various Web browsers and streaming-music embeds. A friend sent me a link to Drowned in Sound's playlist of top songs of the first half of 2009. I was set for the next 7.6 hours.

Then, this happened: My Amazon MP3 bill started escalating as my "shopping cart" filled up with songs from bands I'd never heard of before, like the Veils, Let's Wrestle, and the Big Pink. The no-brainer Spotify platform, and how easy it is for anyone to use it to create playlists and share them in a way that doesn't involve a single wacky embeddable widget, was making me buy music.

But Spotify's long-term prospects are still hazy. Its dual business models, monthly subscriptions (for ad-free accounts and access to its iPhone app) and advertising for free accounts, have historically failed to hold up in the face of the micropayments-based iTunes. CEO Daniel Ek has even acknowledged that profits aren't flooding in yet and accused the labels of inflating licensing fees. The specter of SpiralFrog, another hyped free-music service that went down in flames earlier this year, is still in recent memory.

It's also unclear as to how the Spotify service, currently available in Sweden, Norway, the U.K., Finland, France, and Spain, will fare in the U.S. when it arrives here. Google's new music search feature, which is right now restricted to the States, may give a big advantage to competitors MySpace Music and Lala as search traffic is directed there. There's also the potential money drain: Government regulations over licensing fees nearly tanked Pandora last year. Digital music, you could say, is an industry with a lot of emotional baggage.

Generally, when there are glaring roadblocks in a new relationship, it's a red flag that you shouldn't get too attached. But this is one where I'm willing to fight to keep it alive. I hear there's a chance I'll be shut out of Spotify entirely in a few weeks unless I tweak my IP address somehow to fool the service into thinking I'm in one of its approved countries. Or unless I cough up the money for a premium subscription.

And I'd consider that. Money can't buy me love, but it could buy me Spotify. And right now they're sort of one and the same.