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Spotify: Do You Need It? The Flavorpill Guide

Streaming music site Spotify seems to be a way of life across the Atlantic, so there’s been plenty of excitement among music lovers about the service’s belated arrival in the US. As you’ve probably read elsewhere, you can get straight onto Spotify if you sign up for one of its two levels of premium service (for $5 or $10 a month, depending on which option you choose). If you’re not ready to start throwing cash at a product without having seen it first, however, you need to wait for an invitation to sign up for a free account. Happily, due to a bit of creative wangling, we’ve got ourselves an account already, so let us save you the trouble with Flavorpill’s essential guide to Spotify — what it is, what it does, and whether you’re going to actually want it or not.

Probably the most accurate description of Spotify comes from Wired: “It’s like a magical version of iTunes in which you’ve already bought every song in the world.” Once you’ve signed up for an account and downloaded the client application, you’re greeted with an interface that looks for all the world like a dark-themed version of iTunes. The application clearly wants to be your player for everything — it also imports the contents of your existing iTunes library into its own catalog. The message is clear: you’ll never need another music player again!

Whether this is the case remains to be seen. As far as basic operation goes, Spotify is certainly pretty slick —streaming is quick and reliable, and the catalogue is exhaustive, thanks to the grueling negotiations with major labels that meant that Spotify took so long to get here in the first place. If you’ve used Grooveshark, you’ll find that Spotify is basically a more polished, comprehensive and, um, legal version thereof — you search for tracks, albums or artists, hit “play,” and off you go. So far, so good.

Until the ads start.

As we mentioned, there are three tiers of Spotify subscription: Free, Unlimited ($5 a month), and Premium ($10 a month). If you’re still in the queue for the free application in the hope that you’ll be able to get by with it alone, let us disabuse you here and now of any such notions: for anything beyond just taking a look at Spotify and learning how it works, the free application is pretty much useless. We say this for two reasons. First, there’s a monthly 10-hour cap for free accounts in Europe, and we expect something similar will be imposed in the US eventually. But whether or not this comes to pass, it’s the second reason that makes the free Spotify unusable: the ads.

Understandably, the free application is ad-supported. This is all very well, but the ads aren’t just on your screen — audio ads play periodically between songs. This is intrusive enough, but the kicker comes when you try to mute them — you can’t. They’ll actually detect that your sound is off, and pause until it comes back on again. Quite why any advertiser thinks this is going to endear anyone to their product is unclear, but in any case, it means that if you actually want to use Spotify without throwing your computer out the window, you’ll need the paid version. And so, the question becomes: is it worth paying $5 or $10 a month to stream music from the cloud instead of using free services like Grooveshark or Last.fm? And if so, is Spotify a better option than, say, Rdio or Qriosity?

Basically, all the $5 a month version does is get rid of the godawful ads and any listening cap that may eventually be imposed. You need the $10 a month version for any additional features, which are largely based around mobile and offline listening — Spotify Premium allows streaming to your phone, as well as cached offline listening for both phone and computer (a godsend for New Yorkers riding the subway). Unfortunately, we can’t tell you much about the mobile application, because our shitty, old iPhone 3G won’t let us past the login screen, which isn’t exactly a wonderful first impression.

Whether this is going to be worth $10 a month for you is going to depend on your individual listening habits and what you want out of a cloud-based music service. If you never really buy music and like the idea of having a magic jukebox where you can listen immediately to just about anything that takes your fancy, then Spotify is going to work a treat — one search and that album you don’t own is playing through your speakers. Conversely, if you have a gargantuan iTunes library and the extent of your use for cloud-based services extends to occasionally using Grooveshark to stream that one album you only have on vinyl, or forgot to rip before you lost the CD, then Spotify probably isn’t for you — a free option like Grooveshark will work just fine.

It’s worth noting here that if you fall into the category of people who use streaming services for finding new music, you’re also likely to be underwhelmed — the sharing/social/music discovery aspects of Spotify are less extensive than those of, say, Rdio or Last.fm. There’s an option to connect to Facebook, which we tried out this morning — it basically allows you to see friends’ top artists and top tracks, and subscribe to their new playlists. (It also automatically shares all your iTunes playlists, which is perhaps something to be aware of if you don’t want the entire world to see the contents of “CD for mom”).

There’s also the option to share tracks and/or playlists via Facebook, Twitter, an internal Spotify profile, and external linking. Shared playlists, in particular, are hugely popular in Europe and make for a fine way to share a mixtape with a friend or the world — our friends over at The Quietus use these fairly frequently. But that’s it — there’s nothing like Last.fm’s radio feature or Pandora’s recommendation engine.

But quibbling about such things is probably not entirely fair to Spotify, because they seem to extend beyond the scope of what the product was designed to do. Basically, it aspires to be a subscription-based iTunes replacement that augments your own music with a huge cloud-based library of goodness. It’s not the revolution that the hype has made it out to be — but what it does, it does well. And if that’s all you need out of a service like this, then subscribe with confidence.

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