TBTS Reassesses: Spotify — A Year On, Has It Lived Up to the Hype?
One year ago, I wrote a lengthy piece for TBTS reviewing the then new to the U.S. music streaming service, Spotify. At the time, there was a lot of momentum and enthusiasm for the Spotify model, both from the music industry and its ilk — which still seems much like an acid casualty wandering around the Altamont free concert in 1969, witnessing the stabbing but failing to understand that peace and love was over — and from the music consuming public.
Since then, and with the help of Facebook and others, Spotify has saturated the digital music-listening culture at large, adapting and adding to itself in attempts to make it as indispensable as possible. The structure is still the same, a three-tiered system for accessing the music: there’s a free, ad-heavy service that provides up to 10 hours of listening pleasure a month; a middle service that is $5 a month and that provides ad-free, unlimited listening; and finally, the premium service, that, in addition to the ad-free, unlimited music of the middle tier, will allow you to listen to music offline and through an app on your mobile device. The past six months have seen many additions to the service, primarily through a number of in-service apps that also blend social media with the music listening experience. Some of the apps are great, some not, but overall, it seems to be a commitment by Spotify to the continual improvement of the listening experience.
I initially signed up for the premium service. And it was incredible. I loved it. I accessed more new music, checked out more new releases as they were released, and, more than anything, loved being able to listen to it all on the go. As I mentioned last year, for me, it was really the abundance of small label and indie music that made the premium service worth it. But as I also pointed out, if Spotify couldn’t find ways to address the royalty gaps for the small labels and indie bands, and were those acts to disappear, the service would be much less attractive.
So a year on, how is it? Still indispensable? Time to move on to greener pastures?
Yes and no. Yes, Spotify is still pretty incredible — the selection remains one of the deepest that you could hope to find. However, much as I had feared, the relationship with the smaller labels seems to be a bit tenuous. I would find certain songs/bands/albums, put them on playlists, and listen to them on bike rides, walks, drives, etc. But then, a few months later, I would notice that they weren’t there. Search for them? Gone, as though they were never available. Other times, it would seem like the labels were using the service more as a way to generate interest in a band, and then, once a certain level of saturation had been achieved and/or a new album was released, the previously available material was gone.
I get it. From the independent/small label’s or artist’s perspective, the royalties paid per song play are probably not quite worth the trade off of having the material available for free. Sure, most people can find that music for free online anyway, and so getting some money is better than getting none. Still, for the label that just barely covers costs and puts the bulk of their profits from one release into subsequent releases, facilitating a further dip in their revenues by driving people to Spotify makes little sense to the label.
So the question is — and the conundrum that I found myself wrestling with — why should I spend $10/month to maybe have access to music I want?
I still use Spotify, mostly to listen to music while I work, though rarely at home. I got rid of the premium service. For free, I still have access to the same amount of material (though I don’t have the mobile service). And that’s what I use it for, to find new music/bands/songs that I haven’t heard before. What if, I began asking myself, I spent that $10 I’m giving to Spotify at iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, or at my local record store? And that’s basically what I’ve done.
There are two things that distinguished Spotify, and in particular its premium service, from other streaming services: one, obviously is the amount of material. But the second is the feeling of ownership the user has — the user seeks and finds music, then creates playlists to capture that music, much like s/he would through his/her iTunes catalog. But when the user can’t always be sure that the music they’ve discovered is going to be there when they want to hear it, that illusion of ownership vanishes. And considering that, apart from the ads and the mobility the premium service provides, the free version provides the same amount of access, why would anyone pay for it?
So, while I’m sure Spotify would prefer that I (and others) continued shelling out money every month to listen to music that I don’t own and can’t be sure I’ll have access to from week-to-week, I wouldn’t say get rid of it altogether. It serves its purpose.