Spotify is the latest craze in the customizable music experience. The “digital music service that gives you access to millions of songs” received accolades in this month’s issue of Wired Magazine, not only for the extent of its services, but also its partnership with Facebook as it capitalizes on music as a social experience. For now, Spotify seems to have answered those questions that have dogged the music industry for the last ten years: how do you offer free music, and yet, still help artists (and their respective rights holders) profit from their creative wares?
Because not much more than a decade ago, immensely popular peer-to-peer file sharing networks (P2P) like Napster cropped up, giving anyone with an internet connection and reasonable faith in their security software access a tremendous media library that included not only music, but TV shows, movies, video games, software, and of course, shitloads of porn that had been copied, uploaded, and shared among users. As most digital ventures have been blamed for killing off one industry or another (the latest culprit being e-books), P2P has long been blamed for destroying the profitability of most media industries by making it so easy for the public, and especially college students, to become dirty thieving bastards.
It was total pandemonium. The gatekeepers had been usurped; their once-faithful business model rendered unworkable. But evolution takes time, and fervent resistance to change appeared to be one of the steps to getting there. Regulators tried to adapt old laws to new happenings. The recording industry fought back with their own team of slick lawyers and lobbyists (probably all Jimmy Buffet fans), waving the legal spectre of the RIAA against all those who dared steal from their constituents. While broadcasters, movie studios and distributors, video game developers, and even entertainers themselves jumped on board the anti-piracy bandwagon to collectively wag fingers and cuff wrists, the major record labels seemed to do the most damage to their reputation. A few high-profile lawsuits were pursued and a handful of corny PSAs were made. However, the real work was done behind doors to tighten the reigns over consumers through a new era of digital media regulation.
At some point, someone figured out the glaringly obvious: you’re doing it wrong. A customizable and social music experience can be profitable! Realllly profitable!
Streaming content was one of the compromises. It’s a kind of look, but don’t touch policy in that consumers can pick and choose content from extensive libraries, but not be able to copy and distribute the files. Typically, the content can be streamed for free, though many offer paid subscriptions for ad-free programming. And hell, the person may even click over to Amazon or iTunes or some other site and actually purchase a copy of their own.
Pandora Radio (available only to U.S. listeners) and Last.fm (available internationally) were the first major streaming sites to start looking at ways in which you give the consumer something and encourage them to try something else. The answer was found in something that had been around for years: radio. Pandora actually uses the terms. Its users create “stations” rather than playlists. The user selects from an infinite number of (typically more established) artists and songs in Pandora’s library. These are organized into particular “genomes” (see the Music Genome Project) that Pandora then uses to identify similar music that the user might like based on their initial choices (there are also simple, genre-based stations where Pandora chooses all music that fits under a certain heading like indie rock or alternative). Users can ultimately decided whether or not that’s what they want on their station, and giving the thumbs down eliminates it from the equation, further tailoring the listening experience.
Pandora’s listeners have no control over the tracks that play, nor the order in which they appear. They also cannot go back and replay previous songs during that session. Skipping ahead to the next track is also limited. The listener’s control is really only over the choice of music that Music Genome Project uses to recommend songs, and over which of those recommended tracks he or she likes. It was an opportunity to help people find new music based on certain tastes and, in turn, to really give emerging artists some exposure, something that was kind of lacking elsewhere on the web after the idiotic demise of MySpace. Ideally, if the user liked the track or the artist overall, they would either want to buy their music (there are links to purchase on Pandora), or at the very least, tell other people about. Largely, spreading the word would have to be done on user’s own accord, since Pandora’s social element was limited to Pandora account holders sharing stations with one another. More recently, a featured was added so that the user could provide feedback to newer artists (at least when prompted).
Then came Grooveshark. A free, ad-based digital service (with options to upgrade to ad-free) developed by some students at the University of Florida, Grooveshark gave its listeners more independence than the internet radio sites. Users can search the site’s massive music library (compiled via torrents and user uploads) for artists, songs, or albums, and create a playlist containing exactly the music they want, and in the order they want. They can even play them on repeat. Songs could be favorited (like the Thumbs Up or Down concept in Pandora) and saved to an overall library (aptly called “My Music”) or separate, user-created playlists. It was in many ways more like the peer-to-peer networks, though without the downloading capabilities (although there are third party add-ons that can be added to your browser to capture streaming media). But even with all the independence, Grooveshark, too, gave users a way to find similar music based on their selections. The “radio” feature would match songs based not on genomic categorizing (as it did in Pandora), but rather user-based suggestions. It’s still a feature that could use some work since some newer, less established artists may not yet be linked to any other artists, and the smaller the track selection, the less the variation in the recommended artists that follow. Borrowing on Pandora’s social method, Grooveshark account holders can share playlists with one another and provide feedback to new artists (when prompted). A feature was later added so that those with Facebook accounts could comment on song, album, and artist pages on Grooveshark.
Cloud service was the next approach, which allowed users to access their music libraries regardless if they were on the device where the initial files were stored. This is what Google Music does. It is kind of like an expansion on iTunes, if you could add music to iTunes from any folder on any device you want, and be able to access it anywhere. So, while there is some attempt to make the user aware of other music in which they may be interested, Google Music is primarily an easily-accessible storage system for your music. Users select the file(s) where the music is stored that they want to add to the library. It can be done from several devices, and the library can automatically update when new music is added to those locations. Best of all, because it’s a web-based service, you can pull up the library on your computer and mobile devices. Probably to avoid a whole lot of headaches about copyrights, there is no social element. Google Music, for example, does not let accountholders share their libraries, or even their playlists. There is also no Facebook tie-in.
Spotify came along with something that was a little bit of all of this: internet radio, independent listening, and cloud service. As with Google Music, it required an invitation to download and use (something like a software plug-in to activate the player). It is able to store your existing music libraries, such as iTunes, and, if you have Spotify on your other computers or mobile devices, it can be accessed from anywhere you use the app (although there are still bugs being worked out in the mobile arena). Like Grooveshark, users can also search the library of supposedly more than 15 million songs and, if they wanted, create an infinite number of playlists with those tracks. And, like Pandora and Last.fm, users can find new music by either have Spotify make recommendations based on selected tracks, or users can find playlists by other Spotify users. However, the social element with Spotify is contingent on users having a Facebook account. Facebook friends can share playlists directly, subscribe friend’s playlists, and, because Facebook enjoys making your friends every move public information, the Facebook feed will even inform you of ever singly song or playlist your friends are listening to on Spotify (every goddamn time they listen to it), although there is a privacy option that deactivates this.
The Swedish-based company is only 3 years old, and didn’t expand services to the United States till 2010. It’s not a lot of time to really develop and improve a product with such a dramatic reach, so what explains its incredible success? Well, if you’re like me, you first found out about the site from your friends who raved about it on Facebook. As the Wired article explained, Napster co-founder and former Facebook president, Sean Parker (otherwise known as the guy Justin Timberlake played in The Social Network), spread word about the site to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who then, of course, posted a Facebook status about it, without even really knowing what it was (lucky for Zuckerberg, it wasn’t a total piece of shit!). Integration with Facebook did wonders for Spotify’s publicity, but overshadows the limitation of its service.
Part of that has to do with trying to provide a free music service legally, which means working within a very tight, and sometimes confusing map of rights and licenses. Which means that Spotify’s library isn’t really all that wonderful. For example, exclusive distribution rights with iTunes means that you won’t find any Beatles songs on Spotify. And, like the cable TV provider that claims to offer a zillion channels, but most of which turn out to be nonsense filler, Spotify’s library is packed with karaoke versions (either instrumentals of the track, or covers) of a significant number of songs, particularly by major artists. Grooveshark is still the best when it comes to the reach of its library.
Another major problem with Spotify is the amount of time music play is interrupted by advertising on free accounts, whether by Spotify’s team telling you about one feature or another, or artists. Pandora uses similar ad spots, but does so rather sparingly, and quite briefly. With Spotify, the ads sometimes run after every other song. Moreover, ads by artists are not tailored to the user’s tastes, so it becomes aggravating to repeatedly hear an advertisement for say, a pop country song I would never have bought in the first place. Grooveshark remains the least intrusive even in its free accounts – everything is print-based advertising (though there are also plug-ins to remove these ads).
I was convinced that Grooveshark (it still offers some of the best services) could be major competition for Spotify if they had added a cloud component or at least expanded upon its social features. But, as another article in Wired about a prominent tech investor makes clear, Spotify has the financial backing Grooveshark never will.