There's no shortage of ways to pump up your music library, hear favorite songs on the go and discover new artists. Yet even with iTunes, Pandora, Slacker, Rhapsody, MOG, Rdio, Napster, Amazon Cloud Player, Google Music and other digital providers, fans stateside have been anticipating the arrival of a hot European import called Spotify. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has marveled that "Spotify is so good."
Overseas, the streaming service has attracted more than 10 million users and 1.6 million paying subscribers. Spotify's U.S. debut has long been delayed, as the company tried securing licensing rights from all the major labels, which is always a tangled process.
Spotify wouldn't confirm licensing specifics, but all the labels appeared to be represented during my early access of the U.S. version. The Spotify catalog has some 15 million tracks, a darn impressive stash. Barring a last-minute snag, Spotify's American debut was set for today, though some folks will still have to wait.
As in Europe, Spotify lets consumers choose from three plans, including a free plan -- for now invitation-only -- that provides instant on-demand computer access to the complete catalog.
Think about this for a second. I've always liked the concept of subscription music -- the idea that for a fee you can listen to more or less anything on a whim, without having to purchase the song. Except, this veritable jukebox in the cloud is providing you these streams legally -- and for free. Under the plan you will have to put up with ads -- fewer than you'd hear on commercial radio, Spotify claims. And you can listen only on a PC or Mac.
If you'd prefer to go ad-free, the "unlimited" plan is expected to cost $5 a month, and you won't have to wait for an invitation. Those who spring for the $10 monthly "premium" plan also get ad-free access and have the option to listen on smartphones, tablets and other devices. Spotify supports iOS, Android, Windows, Palm and Symbian phones. It also works with Sonos, Logitech Squeezebox and certain other high-fi devices.
What's more, premium subscribers can listen to high-quality (320 Kbps) streams, not the 160 Kbps that other users hear. Premium subscribers can also listen to chosen tracks even when an Internet connection is absent.
Accounts are synchronized so you can listen to your playlists across numerous devices. Under any plan, you can play and organize your own MP3s.
I tested Spotify on computers and via an app Spotify made available to me on an iPhone. Mobile apps for the U.S. market are expected to be available at launch.
Except for a few technical hiccups (such as buffering delays) and an interface that is a tad busy, Spotify is a pleasure to use.
Inside Spotify's software, you can check out new releases, top charts and music feeds shared by Facebook friends, along with artist bios. Songs are displayed in the order of popularity. A list of your Facebook friends on Spotify are shown right there. Click to see their public playlists.
It's a breeze to create playlists (with up to 10,000 tracks) by dragging and dropping songs from your inbox to a panel on the left side of the Spotify desktop app. At a single click, you can publish playlists and share them via Facebook, Twitter or Windows Messenger. You can also create links to your playlists that you can pass along by e-mail. And you can make the playlists collaborative so your friends can contribute their own songs.
You can also find Spotify-ready playlists on third-party websites such as ShareMyPlaylists.com, BBCify.com and Spotiseek.com. Of course, you can type in a song title or the name of an artist in a conventional search box.
I found most of what I was looking for, everything from Rachmaninoff to Rihanna.
The Beatles (as is the case just about everywhere outside of iTunes) were largely nowhere to be found, though I could access the Fab Four songs stored on my hard drive from within Spotify.
The U.S. version won't have all the features of its European counterpart, at least right away. For starters, you can't actually buy music, as is possible overseas. A Pandora/Slacker-like artist radio feature won't be part of the U.S. launch, either.
That said, Spotify is dandy and should appeal to lovers of all types of music.
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