February 27, 2021

State of the Art: Online Music, Unshackled

Well, the recording executives may, in fact, be big greedy dunderheads. But over the years, little by little, they’ve tried to make online music sales fairer and more convenient.

Today, Web music services are spread across the entire range of the price/convenience/permanence matrix. Some offer music that’s free and legal, but you can’t choose exactly which songs play (Pandora.com). Some let you download song files to own forever for 79 cents to $1.30 each (iTunes and Amazon.com). Some let you rent music — that is, listen to all you want for a flat monthly fee, but you’re left with nothing when you stop paying (rdio.com, Napster.com, Rhapsody.com).

And some services are illegal.

This month, though, the world took a great step forward toward the holy grail: free, legal, song-specific and convenient. After years of pulling out its corporate hair in tufts while negotiating with the music companies, Spotify has finally brought its service to the United States.

If that means nothing to you, then you’re clearly out of touch with the Europeans. For three years, they’ve been going crazy over Spotify. It’s a beautiful, polished, iTunes-like program that offers full access to 15 million songs — a bigger catalog than Napster’s, Rhapsody’s, MOG’s or Rdio’s. All the big record companies have signed on to this crazy experiment: Sony, Warner, Universal and EMI. (The usual “we’re afraid of the Internet” bands are missing, like the Beatles, Metallica and Led Zeppelin.)

The sound quality is excellent. (It’s 160-kbps Ogg Vorbis format, if that means anything to you). The music starts playing almost instantly. With a click, you can share your playlists with friends on Twitter or Facebook, or see what they listen to most. A whole ecosystem of Web sites has cropped up where people can share, rate and recommend music and playlists.

And there’s one more big attraction. Let’s see … what was it? Oh, yes — it’s free.

It’s true. For the first time in Internet history, you can now listen to any track, any album, right now, legally, no charge. No wonder it took a while to persuade the record companies.

Now, there are some restrictions. The big one is the ads: every 15 minutes or so, you hear an ad spliced in between your songs (usually for Spotify’s premium plans, described in a moment). And you see banner ads in the Spotify software. If you sign up now, you can listen to all the music you want this way for the next six months — but after that, you’ll be limited to 10 hours of free music a month.

The final footnote on the fantasy of free music is this: you need an invitation to join. That, obviously, is a speed bump intended to prevent Spotify’s computers from blowing up when 300 million hyperventilating Americans arrive simultaneously.

You can request an invitation at Spotify.com, or you can get one from someone who has one of the paid plans. Various corporate sponsors will be giving away invitations to the free service, too (Coke, Motorola and Reebok, for example).

Even so, for millions of people, that’s still a better deal than anyone has offered before. Like some new song on the radio? Go home and listen to the whole album, or that band’s entire catalog. Tired of your hipster Facebook buddy talking about the latest buzz band and leaving you clueless? Fire up Spotify and listen to his playlists. Considering seeing a musical? Listen to the cast album first.

For penny pinchers, this free and easy way to call up any song, instantly, is a giddy new entertainment option.

Better yet, the Spotify software on your Mac or PC automatically recognizes and displays your existing music collection stored in iTunes or Windows Media Player — even your playlists. You can manage your own songs, and incorporate them into playlists, right alongside the 15 million offered by Spotify. It’s not as full-featured (or as cluttered) as iTunes, but the essentials are here: you can search, sort, organize and get recommendations for music.

Now, in Europe, 84 percent of Spotify’s 10 million listeners do it the free way, tolerating those occasional ads. But it’s easy to imagine that there are some people who say, “Jeez — I’d happily pay, say, $5 a month to get rid of those ads, that 10-hour limit and the invitation waiting list!”

That’s why Spotify offers the $5-a-month, no-ads, no-limits, no-invite plan (called Unlimited).

And surely there’s another group of hardcore music lovers who say, “That’s great, but I’d pay even more if I could listen on my phone. Preferably even when it’s offline, like on a plane or the subway.”

That’s why Spotify offers the $10-a-month, no-ads, no-limits, no-invite, sync-to-your-phone, download-too plan (called Premium).

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=7ccba1187932ceb332b36d6bcde1c7f4

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