Katherine Boehret

New Way to Stream Music Crosses the Pond

Until last week, mentioning Spotify to some music fans in the U.S. was like dangling a cream-filled doughnut before a kid barred from eating sweets. Spotify’s music-streaming service was only available in the United Kingdom and Europe, and it seemed Americans would never get to try it.

Finally, last Thursday, Spotify became available here—but only by registering on its website and waiting for an invitation, which may take several days to receive. I’ve been using Spotify (a cross between “spot” and “identify”) to see what all the hype is about.

I found Spotify runs remarkably fast and does a good job of incorporating Facebook friends and their playlists—as long as they, too, use the service. Spotify could stand to improve in music discovery, as it doesn’t allow searching by genre or editors’ picks, nor does it make suggestions as you type into its search box—a useful feature if you don’t know the full name of an artist or song. Spotify’s ability to play the exact song you want rather than a collection of similar songs gives it a leg up on the likes of Pandora, but it also makes users do more work finding songs to play.

Spotify is a software program that must be downloaded and installed on a Mac or PC—it doesn’t run in a Web browser like many of its competitors. Spotify lets users search for and play specific songs from a music library of over 15 million tracks. It also imports local music files from your computer, displaying them along with the music in Spotify’s extensive library.

DSOLUTION

The options for streaming songs on Spotify on the left; the People list on the right lets users see and share music with friends on the service.

To mark the U.S. launch, people who sign up for Spotify now get a free account for the next six months that offers unlimited tracks and unlimited hours of listening. Afterward, people already registered will get 10 hours of music a month and five plays per track free of charge. People who don’t sign up now will be restricted to 20 hours of play for the first six months; after that, 10 hours of listening a month with five plays per track. All free accounts include ads.

Spotify subscriptions are available, including an ad-free, unlimited play, $5 a month account. There’s also an ad-free, unlimited play $10 a month account that enables listening to playlists offline and taking music to portable devices.

Spotify’s rivals don’t offer the wide selection of songs and free streaming at the same time. Apple’s iTunes has over 14 million tracks—almost as many as Spotify—but doesn’t offer streaming options beyond 90-second clips of songs. The Pandora Internet-radio service allows free streaming, but it has just 800,000 tracks and doesn’t let its free-account holders play specific songs—only “radio stations” customized around music that’s similar to a chosen song, artist or genre. MOG, Rhapsody and Rdio offer free streaming for trial periods. Like Spotify, both MOG and Rdio charge $5 or $10 for ad-free listening, and their $10 versions enable playing music on portable devices.

I downloaded and installed Spotify on a Windows PC and on a Mac, and in both instances the software speedily imported my computers’ music and sorted it into a Local Files category. A What’s New category has a New Releases section that suggests content based on an algorithm that combines new releases and artists that are most popular on Spotify. A feed of social-networking suggestions from Spotify and your Facebook friends are also displayed in What’s New.

While an Internet-radio service like Pandora creates radio stations on the fly that play a steady stream of music (with ads in the free version), Spotify uses a Play Queue, which is a list of songs from playlists and tracks you find and add. Play Queue consists of any song you drag or right-click and add to it. Any playlist you open and start playing, regardless of whether you created it, got it from a friend or found it on a website where Spotify playlists are shared (like Spotiseek.com) will be added to the Play Queue.

Using Facebook Connect, Spotify users can see a list of Facebook friends who use the service. The People list is displayed in a right-side panel, along with a Facebook profile photo for each person. By clicking on each friend’s name, I saw their public playlists and was able to click a button to subscribe to each list and add the songs to my Play Queue. I could also see each person’s Top Tracks and Top Artists.

People can opt to hide all of their Spotify account information from public view or make it all public. They can make certain aspects of their account public, like Top Artists or a playlist that they particularly like and want to share.

I easily shared songs with friends by dragging track names and dropping them onto a friend’s name on the People list. A message window popped up in which I wrote a note about the shared song that was sent via Spotify’s internal messaging system. An inbox in the top left corner of Spotify indicates new messages.

Another pop-up window lets people share songs via Facebook, Twitter, Spotify itself or Windows Messenger. But my friends couldn’t click on the shared link to listen to songs unless they downloaded Spotify. This is one of the big disadvantages of Spotify not running in a Web browser.

I tested Spotify’s mobile app on an iPhone, but it also works on the iPod Touch, iPad, Android and Windows Phone and WebOS devices. By connecting the iPhone to the same Wi-Fi network as the PC that had Spotify installed, my music—including playlists I made and tracks I bookmarked with a star icon on the PC software—synched over to the iPhone.

If you tend to choose music according to what your friends like and a lot of your friends use Spotify, you won’t likely have a problem with discovering music in Spotify. Otherwise, you may be frustrated by the relatively limited What’s New music selection. Overall, using this service feels a bit like someone opened a vast library of digital music and made it free for unlimited listening—at least for now.

Watch a video with Katherine Boehret on the Spotify music-streaming service at WSJ.com/PersonalTech. Email katie.boehret@wsj.com.

Corrections & Amplifications

A previous version of this column stated that iTunes has 30-second song previews instead of 90-seconds.


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