7/27/11

Spotify: Awesome, But Not Awesome Enough

Like a lot of people, I've spent some time over the past couple of weeks trying out Spotify (and no, I don't have an invite to give you, sorry).  And I've reached a conclusion: namely, that while Spotify offers a lot, I will never switch all my music to a rental/streaming model.  I was already pretty sure of that, and then last week's Netflix streaming outage (on the heels of jacking up their prices to push users towards streaming-only plans) convinced me.  Access to music is simply too important to me for me to rely on a rental model where I'm at the whim of a company who is subject to outages, price increases, changes in Terms of Service, etc.  But that's not to say there's nothing good about Spotify; on the contrary, it's a pretty amazing service, and I'm glad it's finally available in the US.  Here's how my experience with Spotify has gone so far:

I was delighted to get the invite in my inbox.  I installed it immediately, and watched as it scanned my music folder (without asking me) and added the music files on my computer to its local database.  Well, not all the music files - only the MP3s.  For me, this was a big drawback.  Most of my music is in FLAC, and so Spotify only picked up about 40% of my local files.  This is important not just for playing those files locally, but because Spotify uses the presence of a file in your local library to determine whether or not to play ads to you while you listen - for example, say I searched for "Viva Voce" in Spotify.  If their new album comes up in the search results and I play it, Spotify will check to see if I have a local copy (in MP3 format) of those files - if so, it plays the local copy and does not play me ads.  If not, it will stream those tracks to me via their fancy P2P implementation, and interrupt the music with ads.  In addition, other Spotify users can't use my local copies of those files as part of their streaming experience, so everybody takes a small hit when Spotify can't recognize all of my local music.

Speaking of those ads, they are horrible.  My first 24 hours or so with Spotify was a beautiful, ad-free music playground.  I looked up artists I'd wanted to hear more of, I could quickly find bands that a friend had recommended to me, etc. all without hearing or seeing a single ad.  Then at some point I closed and restarted Spotify, and when it came back, it was more like listening to commercial radio while browsing the web without AdBlock.  The ads were typically either for the latest album from some horrible nu-metal band (rather jarring to hear in the middle of an otherwise nice playlist) or for Spotify Premium.  Sometimes the music would just stop after an ad played, and the interface would show me a message saying that my music would resume after the ad had played.  I had to restart to fix that.

Now for the good:  their music library is nearly unlimited.  I've had a hard time stumping it (but when I did, it wasn't always with something obscure - for example, they have The Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" but not Dylan's), and so I've enjoyed exploring the back catalogue of some artists I like.  The queuing system is convenient and intuitive, it's simple to make (and share) a playlist, and in general, it works the way you'd expect it to, which is nice.  Speaking of playlists, "shared playlists" are a very cool feature - that's the ability to see playlists that your Facebook friends have put together.  If their playlists contain songs from their local library that Spotify doesn't have in their rights network, you can't play them, but you can play everything else, so it adds a nice social aspect to the experience.  I do wish that it didn't enable sharing of your playlists by default, though - I don't necessarily want to share every random playlist I throw together. But it is cool to see the list of Facebook friends growing as more and more people get access to invites.

Speaking of shared playlists, they made me realize that for me, Spotify is missing a key feature:  recommendations.  I found myself looking to shared playlists as a way to find some new music, or something that I might like (the old-fashioned way, i.e. "what are my friends into?").  I know that recommendation isn't in Spotify's core path, and that makes sense...but I was hit with the conundrum of "now I have access to nearly every song, ever....what the hell do I listen to?"  Fortunately, I found Spotibot, which generates Spotify playlists for you based on various information from your Last.FM profile.  This is just one of many mashups and integrations that Spotify highlights here.  All of this is made possible via the Spotify Metadata API, which appears to be pretty great - though I'm not sure yet how it compares to the one from Echo Nest in terms of depth of data.

After playing with Spotify for a while, I did notice some unexplained UI things that were not intuitive to me (and not well explained in their documentation) - e.g. the music note icon (which I think means that a file is in your local library), the "Unlink Tracks" context-menu item, the "Go To Replacement" context-menu item, and a few others.  But on the whole, Spotify is a great addition to the world of digital music players/streamers/aggregators.  With the ads playing, I can't see myself using the free version every day - it's just too annoying.  And I can't really see paying for access to thousands and thousands of tracks I don't want to listen to just to get access to a few more that I do.

How about you?  Have you used it yet?  What did you think?  What's great?  What's missing?  Tell me in the comments.

3 comments:

Lightnin' No Last Name said...

I had the same problem with the ads interrupting the music stream entirely - having to restart at that point means losing your queue, which was annoying. And I was also disappointed about the mp3-only basis (since I'm a tool and rip in apple lossless instead of mp3.) It's an impressive service, but I have a hard time justifying the premium account. When the caps come along, I'll probably just use it to check out new music. One huge missing aspect is listening stats. I rely too much on smart playlists at this point for syncing my iphone (eg, 5-star songs that haven't been played in the past 3 months) and I haven't seen that spotify tracks statistics at all...

Lightnin' No Last Name said...

Oh wait. Now I see some stats. Scratch that comment...

Anonymous said...

super blog & article - great work! have you figured out what "unlink" means on local files yet. after browsing the net for hours i am still clueless as to what exactly it means and whether my files or their files are playing when i playlist local albums - i want the option to play my own files - do i chose "link" or "unlink"?. 'would appreciate your help... cheers! :)