The music streaming service Spotify, which was launched in Sweden in 2008 and has been eagerly awaited by tech-savvy music fans in the United States for the past year, has begun offering its U.S. version.
The service has won over users in Europe — and generated anticipation here — by offering a simple service: a huge catalog of music that can be streamed, combined into playlists and accessed from any computer with an Internet connection, all free.
That four letter word — F-R-E-E — is the major difference between Spotify and other streaming services that have taken hold in the U.S. with varying degrees of success while Spotify was growing in Europe. Rhapsody, Rdio, MOG and other services that offer subscription access to large databases of music all charge a fee for access. To offer its free version, Spotify has spent the past year negotiating licensing deals with the four major labels in the U.S.; The New York Times reported yesterday that it just finalized a deal with the fourth, Warner Music Group, on Wednesday afternoon.
Ease of use and catalog size are the second and third tent poles for Spotify, but you'll deal with some restrictions if you want to use the free version. It comes saddled with a few advertisements, as well as limits on the number of hours you can listen each month — 20 for the first six months of your membership, 10 after that, and you can listen to each song only five times per month. More important for the time being, it will also require an invitation from the company, which you can request at its website.
And of course, while Spotify's new ads tout "free!" as the service's biggest selling point, what the company actually wants is paid subscribers. Indeed, users who want to skip the ads and the wait for an invitation can sign up for one of two paid plans right now: "Unlimited," for $4.99 per month, gives you the service ad-free and without time limits; "Premium," for $9.99 per month, adds features like mobile access, an offline mode that allows access to stored playlists when you're not on the Internet, and "enhanced sound quality."
All of the plans include integration with Facebook — you can make playlists with friends and see what other people like — as well as the ability to import the music you own into your library.
Even the "Premium" service isn't completely comprehensive. While Spotify has made those deals with the four major labels, there are some big indie holes. Searches revealed that recent albums by Gillian Welch, Shabazz Palaces and Ty Segall haven't made it into the service's catalog yet. If you own those albums, you can have Spotify search your hard drive and add them to your library, but you can't go to Spotify to sample anything from, say, Sub Pop. Not yet, anyway. If the demand for the service matches the anticipation, there probably won't be many holdouts for long. Spotify says it currently has 15 million songs in its database and is adding 10,000 each day.
We'll keep using the service, and offer updates later, but if you're using Spotify now, let us know what you think. What do you want from a music player?