Spotify's music manager makeover - does it work?
Join their download club, use your iPod, scratch your head...
Last week, Spotify announced perhaps the biggest overhaul to its service since its launch. It has taken several days to roll out and is very interesting.
Most of the attention in early reports was on one technical feature: the ability to sync music with Apple's iPods and iPhones. But it is as interesting for the new commercial proposition. Streaming is now just one of several things that Spotify does, which is slightly surprising since Spotify is the best known "streaming" music company in Europe. Last week Spotify also introduced what is effectively a "download club", too: you get discounts on volume purchases. And these volumes, or bundles, are lists of your choice – not that of a record company.
How does all this add up in practice? Is it worth your money? Does it break Spotify's legendary simplicity? By Friday, we were in a better position to find out. Using both the new iPhone client and desktop client, I took it through its paces.
Piggy-backing onto iTunes
The main technology shift is that rather than operating as an independent "silo", Spotify now leans heavily on your existing MP3 collection and associated playlists.
"Devices" is new
What are they trying to tell us?
The desktop client reads your iTunes library, and replicates the "hard" playlists as it first finds them; iTunes' "smart playlists" are simply ignored. It's all done with the minimum of fuss. Most people won't notice the indexing process, and the Playlists appear almost instantly.
Similarly, on the phone, the Spotify client now reads the local library, and locally stored playlists, playing what it can. But it also copies all your Desktop playlists. Since most desktop libraries are larger than a mobile device can handle, many people use a subset of those playlists on their mobile device. This means the playlists in the Spotify mobile client maybe sparsely populated, or completely empty. Weird.
Unlike iTunes, Spotify doesn't support hierarchical playlists. I have hundreds, and it's hard enough to manage them even with folders, in one great long vertical list. Power users, note.
Before you start using Spotify in earnest, you'll need to manually twiddle with a couple of options.
Buying the tenner-a-month package entitles you to "High Quality Streaming" at 320kbit/s. But the lower bitrate streaming is stil the default. The Spotify client doesn't know seem to know which tariff you are on.
The other tweak, if disk space is short, is to keep an eye on how much space is being used by the Spotify cache. This will continue to grow and grow, unless you manually inhibit it.
Yes, go ahead and use up all of my precious SSD space for your vast cache.
Note that Spotify doesn't make a copy of the MP3: it uses the hierarchy and folder structure set up by iTunes.
A pop-up menu confirms that Spotify leaves the MP3 where it found it – in the iTunes folder hierarchy.
Is the song available or not?
Annoyingly, Spotify continues to display song titles which you have stored locally, but which it doesn't have on its servers, in grey. This is ambiguous and suggests the song isn't available ... Why do you need to be told this? If you already have it locally, who cares whether it's on the Spotify's servers or not?
Not all metadata is transferred. Playcounts and ratings are not transferred in the import. In fact, ratings in Spotify are the simple binary star. This might be a deal breaker for some.
It does show some odd inconsistencies in the Spotify library.
Spotify imports what it can, including iPhone voice memos.
So let's make a custom playlist and see how it works.
Syncing in action
Custom playlists in Spotify now show the album artwork as a sequence of thumbnails too. Juggling the order of the playlist juggles the thumbnails.
While playlists synced fine, the data didn't. This list, for example, didn't play.
Spotify's new iPhone client
The other major shift is the new emphasis on acquiring music to keep.
Spotify has had a download store, giving you DRM-free MP3s via 7Digital, for a couple of years. Until last week, it looked like this:
The old buy option
Previously, buying MP3s to keep wasn't integrated with your Spotify account info.
The old style "buy" pop-up
Now it is.
The new style buy option
For a Premium User, signing into the new MP3 store is much like signing into the iTunes store. It's much easier to buy stuff now. The default option is "Buy one for £1.15" – which is a way, I guess, of skimming off mug punters. But it's merely one of several options. Here are the others:
Buying a bundle: don't blame Spotify for the pricing inflexibility.
Essentially, you're opting into a pre-pay membership club. Spotify gives you volume discounts. These are fairly modest at low volumes: if you pledge £50 up front, then each MP3 will cost 50p.
This is cheaper than iTunes store, and Amazon's standard pricing. But read on – the picture is much more complicated, and pricing strategies around the web leave the honest punter looking at much better deals elsewhere.
I was an early adopter of Spotify, but an early departee too. At first I was in awe of its performance, which seemed to stream music faster over the network than if it was stored locally. When Spotify added mobile support, it seemed quite the novelty to pick an album from its vast library a few minutes before heading home, to hear it all on the ride home. But that turned out to be more of a theoretical feature than the reality. Spotify on the iPhone was hampered by the lack of background multitasking in iOS 4 – more often that not you'd have a partial download. At other times, playlists that had been safely cached for months would suddenly disappear.
It seems ironic that the more technology we have for managing music, the more time we have to spend farting around to check that something will play when you expect it to. We should have banished this years ago along with DRM, but it has become even less deterministic.
Really, I lost interest for two reasons. I found it a pointless overhead to maintain two libraries, with two sets of playlists, two UIs, and two metadata systems. This stuff is important when you listen to a lot of music and have a poor memory for names. Something had to give.
But I also like to keep stuff I've bought. I like to make a conscious purchasing decision, take my money elsewhere if I have to – and I think the last 10 years of "free" web services that come with lots of strings attached – such as a mortgage on your soul – justify that logic. I want to buy an MP3 and take responsibility for it after that. I don't want fricking "access", or to rent stuff that disappears, thanks.
You can argue that younger music fans don't have such concerns: I'll point out they may yet experience losing something they value, and ask them once they have.
Not everyone shares this concern – but Spotify's latest venture tries to remedy two of the biggest complaints: the silo factor, and the lack of purchasing. It's a decent but not quite successful attempt to marry the two, without steering off the course it initially set.
The new bundle pricing experiment is interesting, but it is also the more disappointing – if not entirely surprising. Apple knows you need iTunes to backup, buy apps, and sync – even if you never buy music. Amazon is a giant retailer that can play games with pricing.
Content suppliers have always had several price tiers: in Amazon's Top 10 alone you'll find both the recent hit Adele record for £7.99 and its predecessor for £3.99. Record companies know they can shift back catalog with more attractive prices, and have always done so. On top of this traditional flexibility, Amazon uses its immense buying power to play some interesting games. It will discount some to £4.99 or even £3.99.
So even if you pledge £50 up front for Spotify's bundles, unless you shop around, you may not be getting a great bargain.
The combination of online-Spotify, offline-Spotify and offline-"yourowncollection" can also be confusing at times, and needs some usability work. Ideally it's not a problem that should ever appear, and if you buy all your music in a nice portable format such as MP3, it never does. But it'll drag on for years I suspect.
I think Spotify is undoubtedly much more attractive than it was a week ago. But YMMV. Let me know how you get on. ®