I’m a few months late to the game, but I’ve finally been trying out Spotify properly and using it to listen to music at home. Many other people have written about this service, most of whom seem to be hugely impressed with the depth of catalogue, the reduced buffering and the overall concept: all music, free and legal.

I have to say, I was initially skeptical. I’m a long term iTunes user, because I think it’s a brilliant music database manager and player. I also like the ease with which it integrates into a wireless playback system in my house, and that it’s also the way in which I subscribe to podcasts and synchronise my iPod.

I don’t buy music from the iTunes store. Only ever did that once for research purposes – and it made me cross. Usual reasons – DRM, cost per track, that sort of thing. I’m a big eMusic fan, actually – and I like the way it integrates with iTunes (though I wish they’d think to embed the album covers within the mp3s).

Learning to listen to the cloud
But I’m really warming to Spotify. Now that I’ve started messing around with it a little bit, created playlists and I’ve stumbled across Spotify Friends – a fledgling community (1200 users at present) of people who share Spotify playlists – it’s becoming more usable and more useful. I’m currently listening to Pitchfork’s top 100 songs of 2008.

I also quite like the idea of Mixifier, which allows you to send mixtapes via Facebook to other Spotify users, with a cool, oldschool cassette tape interface.

I do wish Spotify was skinned with black text on white background and a slightly larger font – but that’s just a design preference on my part. Doesn’t take away from the listening experience. I have the same niggle with Tweetdeck and I use that all the time and love it to bits.

Advertising-supported listening
I had my first Spotify audio ad today. Not bad after about 5 hours of solid listening. And it was fine. It was for an album by The Script, and it seemed to fit in very well with what was going on around it. It was streets ahead of most desperate, shouty radio ads: polite, informative and reasonably unobtrusive. The ad for Watchmen that turned up a dozen songs later was a bit more traditional “In a world…” movie trailer voiceover fare.

The fact that the ads played during a mixed playlist (and an hour or so apart) helped. Had they turned up in the middle of an album like, say, Astral Weeks, they might have been more offensive, and if I start using Spotify to listen to whole albums on a regular basis, I might pay the subscription.

But I own Astral Weeks and I can play the mp3s without interruption – and it’s one of those albums that I like enough to own on vinyl, so I might pour myself a glass of something nice and sit down to listen to side one, then side two. And that, again, means something different.

Music like water?
So Spotify seems to be (at least for Western European users) the all-you-can-eat free music platform. Of course, it doesn’t have everything I want to listen to – not by a country mile. But if you can refrain from throwing it some real curveballs, you’ll be amazed at what it does actually have. No Beatles of course, but I can’t help but think that most people who will ever buy a Beatles album probably already did.

Spotify passes the Alice Coltrane test (does it have ‘Journey in Satchidananda‘?), they have the brilliant Phantom Band album – and it even scrobbles to (something that’s quite important to me) – though I’m one of the unlucky Mac users getting an unresolvable error that only a new Spotify version will fix.

French service Deezer came close, but Spotify takes the prize. This appears to be the music streaming platform solution, in the same way that Google emerged as the search platform, and Twitter became the default short message status update service.

If you’re outside Western Europe, you have something to look forward to. If you’re in the UK – the whole thing is up and fully running, premium service and all. Go for it.

All that said, I personally find it difficult to know where to start with Spotify most of the time. At least with a personal collection, you can scan through and think ‘what do I feel like listening to?’ with the fairly certain sense that you’re going to like whatever you pick – because, well… you own it, right?

But if you wanted to listen to a record you didn’t own – there hasn’t been a better and more convenient way to do that.

And not only will that provide a revenue stream for those music companies, it’ll also help drive traditional sales. People hear music, then like it, then buy it, remember? The fewer restrictions, the better.

The URL is the new mp3
The most significant thing about Spotify, I think, is the fact that every artist, every album and every track has a unique URL that can be sent via email, Twitter, IM, Facebook or any other kind of messaging system – and if the recipient also has Spotify installed, that music will play in exactly the same way it did for the person sending it.

There are no large files to send and no downloads to contend with. With the aid of a URL shortener like, Spotify links can be reduced to a mere 17 characters.

Promo-ing, sharing, recommending and discussing music as part of the cultural ‘meaning-making’ process around music has become virtually frictionless.

And it’s this simple fact that gets Spotify around one of its main criticisms: Unlike, say,, there is no Spotify community. But this criticism misunderstands Spotify and how creating a Spotify community would be a redundant exercise. When every track is a URL, the music community is simply whatever your existing community is. If your people are on Twitter, then that’s your Spotify community.

New meaning – not new model
But as great as it seems to be – and as I’ve said many times before – don’t make the mistake of thinking this ‘the new model’. The way in which people consume music is interesting and diverse.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes pretty mainstream quite quickly.

That said, I still don’t think it’ll be the main way in which I personally listen to music. Perhaps I’m a bit of a throwback in this regard, but I genuinely think there’s something significant about the concept of listening to ‘my’ music.

Because (as my students become tired of hearing me repeat) music creates meaning for people.

Consuming music is more than about discovering, acquiring and listening to music. There’s something about collecting, organising, sharing and – yes – ‘owning’ music that people use to create personal narrative and a connection with creative works. It’s still a cultural artefact and a cultural experience with all of the complexity that implies.

And Spotify adds to this diversity of meaning and experience. It doesn’t replace anything. With a Spotify iPhone app rumoured on the way, and ubiquitous wifi (Wimax?) – promised just around the next corner, it could potentially play a large role in a transformed music listening ecology.

That’s not the same thing as being “the new model” for music consumption. It simply contributes to the diversity and personalisation of musical worlds.

Quality, sure – but mostly convenience
The streams sound pretty good because they’ve given some decent thought to bitrate and codecs. They’ve gone for Ogg Vorbis q5, streaming at around 160kb/s. Better than most.

Whatever the bitrate, however, its clear that the purpose of Spotify is not quality, but convenience. Those two things have always created a tension for music lovers. But for those seeking convenience and a way of listening to significant chunks of the popular recorded music canon, Spotify’s pretty bloody impressive.

Now all that remains is to get your own music on the system. It’d be interesting to find out what the routes are to achieve that, and who the aggregators are that can make that happen for you. If you have clues about that – leave them in the comments.

Spotify seems to divide people. I’m a reluctant convert, rather than a devoted early-adopter fan. What do you make of it?