Spotify is simply the best free music service out there today -- unless you just want to be entertained, rather than putting a bit of effort into entertaining yourself.
Launched in the U.S. this week, Spotify is one of just a handful of services that have tried to build a business around offering songs on demand for free. Unlike ill-fated SpiralFrog, it provides streams, not downloads. And unlike Lala, which was snapped up and shuttered by Apple, users can play songs multiple times, not just once.
One drawback, as with any on-demand service, is that you have to expend a bit of effort to get anything out of Spotify. There's no radio feature; instead, users build playlists song by song or album by album. There are a few shortcuts offered by Spotify's software, though. If your Facebook friends have enabled Spotify Social, you can see the playlists they've made public and any songs they've "shared" (that is, promoted on Spotify). You can import the playlists from your iTunes software, assuming it's on the same computer. There's a list of new releases, although it's neither comprehensive nor up to date. And there are links to the songs and albums most popular among Spotify users.
If you're a purely lean-back kind of listener, Spotify is no match for Turntable.fm or a personalized online radio service such as Slacker or Pandora. It's social features are especially lame in comparison with Turntable.fm, which rightfully stands as the online music flavor of the month.
On the other hand, Spotify offers a great way for people with voracious musical appetites to explore a vast library of recorded music. The interface is familiar to anyone who has shopped at the iTunes store: Start by searching for an artist or song, which will call up a page of links -- to tracks and albums that can be played, or to artist pages. From an artist page you can explore that particular band's music, or quickly bounce to similar artists and their songs.
It's all free, with the occasional advertisement -- at least for the first six months. Then the restrictions will kick in. According to my pal Alex Pham, these include a limit of 10 hours of listening per month, and no more than five spins per track.
Those limits (and the commercials) can be avoided for $5 a month. An additional $5 buys the ability to stream songs to a mobile phone and to cache them for playing offline. But having played with Spotify for a few hours, I don't think it meets the standard set by more established paid services. Slacker, Rdio and MOG all offer more compelling ways to discover music; Napster offers better granular control of what you're playing, and integrates music videos and images. (I haven't played with Rhapsody in a while, but it too has more features than Spotify.)
I'm also skeptical that integrating Facebook, as Spotify has done, does much good for users. I'll opine about that a bit more in a future post about the new MOG interface. For now, suffice it to say that people choose their Facebook friends for many reasons that have nothing to do with music, and the integration of Facebook into Spotify makes that painfully apparent.
Having said that, I'll concede that the social features will improve as more users sign up. And the fact that it's free means that they're likely to sign up in droves.
Spotify live in U.S. -- a vision realized for Napster's Sean Parker
Spotify launches (at last) in the U.S.
-- Jon Healey
Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.