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Spotify overhauls free mobile listening with on-demand tracks

Until now, on-demand listening on a mobile device had been reserved for paying members.

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Spotify's Gustav Soderstrom talks up the new features that the company's free music service will be offering users.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Spotify on Tuesday announced an overhaul of its mobile app that boosts the freebies, unlocking on-demand songs that previously were available only to paying customers. 

Users of the free version of the music-streaming service currently are limited to shuffled songs, but Spotify is opening up more on-demand mobile music as it rolls out this new version to all users in the next couple weeks. Users of the free service will be able to listen on-demand to 15 of Spotify's most popular playlists, including your personalized Discover Weekly mix and blockbuster hip-hop list Rap Caviar. In total, the pick-and-play lists represent about 750 tracks, or 40 hours of on-demand music. 

"The free experience on Spotify is becoming a lot more like Spotify Premium," Babar Zafar, vice president of product development, said during Spotify's presentation Tuesday in New York.

Now playing: Watch this: Free Spotify: Here's what's new
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Spotify's free tier is its main gateway to recruiting paid subscribers, and a huge competitive advantage over rivals like Apple Music. Beefing up its free listening to let more people have more control over what they hear gives Spotify the opportunity to lure more new users and then usher them into paying. 

"Simply put, the more you play, the more you pay," said Gustav Soderstrom, Spotify's chief research and development officer.  

Spotify didn't make any changes to its paid Premium tier. While the free tier is now a lot more robust, the paid subscription remains the only way you can get total control over what you listen to and cut out all advertising. Asked why people should pay for a subscription if the free service offers these new perks, Soderstrom said Spotify doesn't get new subscribers by making its free tier any worse. 

Dashing the hopes of some observers, Spotify didn't unveil any hardware Tuesday.

The company introduced other new features to the mobile app Tuesday. A "data saver" toggle caches some music in advance and tweaks the app's functions, like video quality, so the app doesn't gobble up as much of your the mobile data on the go. The company said users can reduce mobile data usage by 75 percent using the data-saver setting.

And the new version of the app also includes "assisted playlisting." Spotify will suggest similar songs as you create a playlist -- you can listen to a snippet and add whatever tracks you like. Playlisting is popular on Spotify, with people having created more than 2 billion playlists on the service.

The specific playlists that allow mobile pick-and-play are unique to each user. Every free listener will have access to his or her personalized lists Discover Weekly, Daily Mix and Release Radar. The other on-demand lists can include popular curated ones like Rap Caviar, Viva Latino, Ultimate Indie and Alternative R&B. 

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Spotify is the world's biggest streaming service. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Spotify has grown into the world's biggest streaming music service, driving a larger, cultural shift in how we play and pay for music. After decades of buying music outright, as we did in the era of CDs and digital downloads, we're increasingly paying flat fees for all-you-can-access tunes. With Spotify leading the charge, that shift has revived the music industry after 15 years of atrophy.

Spotify competes for paying subscribers with Apple Music, Pandora, Google Play Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, Tidal, Deezer, iHeart and others. With 71 million paying members, Spotify is the biggest streaming music service in the world. Apple Music, its closest rival, has 40 million subscribers.

Earlier this month, Spotify became a publicly traded company, trading on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol SPOT. On Tuesday morning its shares were down nearly 2 percent, to around $155.26.

First published April 24, 6:42 a.m. PT
Update, 9:42 am:
Adds more details and quotes. 

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