Friday, 13 February 2009

Spotify: make or break?

In case you haven't already heard about Spotify (here or elsewhere), its main aim is to give you free access to music - it's a sort of CD and piracy replacement service; an infinite jukebox. People compare it to, but where is more about social networking and discovering new music, Spotify is primarily about the music you already like. I have high hopes for it, but as it moves out of the invite-only phase in the UK it's also facing its first major problems: it's suddenly not quite as infinite as it used to be.

As someone who owns more CDs than he knows what to do with anymore and would like some space back (if only to immediately fill it all with books, probably), Spotify is - or could be - ideal for me: it could not only replace much of my CD collection, giving me my space back, and making any future house move a bit easier, but also earn me a few quid selling my CDs on Amazon. It could even replace MP3s, to a small extent; or certainly mitigate the failure of an (un-backed up) hard drive. And when/if it hits mobile phones, it'll be even more useful. But first it has to stick around.

As you can imagine, then, I'm eager to see whether the licensing problems Spotify has been experiencing recently can be resolved - over the last few weeks thousands of tracks have disappeared from its database (some commenters suggest it's more like millions).

Thousands more have been added too, to be fair, and overall I think I've lost only marginally more music than I've gained, after adding stuff from the latest uploads, but that certainly doesn't seem to be the same for everyone. And if users aren't confident that the tracks in their playlists aren't about to disappear, if users don't have plenty of music to choose from, Spotify itself might well disappear: less music = fewer users = less ad revenue, and fewer premium user subscriptions = no Spotify.

But of course so much of this is down to the record companies, rather than Spotify. And that's the truly frustrating thing about tracks disappearing.

Thanks to the internet, music is a worldwide market now, or at least that's how its consumers see things, but too many labels still don't seem to be set up that way. Contracts and licensing and distribution deals are territory, or even country specific. And that seems to have been a large part of the recent problem for Spotify - by way of example, Robyn, a Swedish musician signed to her own independent record label, has her music available to UK Spotify users, but not Swedish ones, according to comments on Spotify's blog. Maybe that's down to an inflexible distribution deal, rather than an idiosyncratic decision on her part, but it still shows that the music industry's set-up needs changing. The infrastructure is out there to easily and cheaply release, publicise and distribute music worldwide - whether through Spotify, downloads, MySpace, blogs, or whatever else - it's just not yet there within the music industry itself it seems.

Ultimately, whether Spotify can untangle the red tape before it's strangled by it all, it's hard to say, but the signs are certainly promising: plenty of media buzz, a willingness to engage with and explain to its users, and plenty of content already on its way back (Warp and Sub Pop anyone?). And while some users will doubtless have been lost with the recent track cull, it seems to be going the right way about recruiting plenty more - not least by keeping streaming and searching pretty quick and glitch-free as the user base increases. So, all in all, I think I can still look forward to owning fewer CDs - I just really hope they aren't extinct before I've sold them all...


Now, for no reason other than that Spotify combines a Scandinavian invention and music, and so does this, here's a stop-motion Lego rave:

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