Spotify, the "freemium" streaming music service that has been popular in other parts of the world for years now, has finally arrived in the U.S. I was able to score a Spotify invite from Trent Reznor this week. Spotify seems to be using an interesting strategy of involving a number of artists and social media outlets in the invitation and sign-up process.
Once you sign up for Spotify, you download the application and login. Spotify features a clean, dark grey user interface that looks like a cross between iTunes and Rhapsody, but with banner ads that alternate between the bottom (horizontally-oriented) and the right (vertically-oriented). It is fairly responsive and pretty easy to navigate. Social networking integration is a central part of your activities in Spotify, as you are encouraged to connect to Facebook, Twitter, Last.fm, and other social networking sites. Spotify will import your existing iTunes or other music library and incorporate it into search results, which was a little confusing at first (local files are marked by a little "note" icon). The one thing that I see lacking from Spotify is a good music directory. When you click on "What's New" from the left navigation pane, you see some album thumbnails from new releases, but nothing like the helpful music genre directories in iTunes or other music services.
The selection is pretty decent, with over 15 million tracks. But, to find music, you have to already know what you want and then search for it. This is one area where I see Spotify needing significant improvement. I found myself having to think of artists to search for instead of having suggestions based on my existing music library or browsing the music library by genre. You can "star" certain tracks or add them to existing or new playlists as you're searching and playing music. Unfortunately, your starred items do not synchronize between instances of Spotify. Audio advertisements periodically interrupt your listening experience when using the free subscription, but this is no different from Pandora, for example. On Mac OS X, the music playback control keys work in Spotify, just like in iTunes, which is nice.
Spotify has three different subscription levels: Free (ad-supported, 20-hour listening limit/mo.), Unlimited ($4.99/mo., unlimited listening, no ads), and Premium ($9.99/mo., mobile access with offline mode). If you subscribe to the Premium service, you can take tunes with you in offline mode and Spotify will synchronize all of your existing iTunes music to your iPod/iPhone. I just can't bring myself to rent my music for $10/mo. I'd rather spend $10/mo. to purchase tracks individually from Amazon's MP3 store, or from iTunes.
In summary, I've had a lot of fun with Spotify, almost as much fun as when I played with the original Napster for the first time. Aside from a few minor annoyances, Spotify totally rocks. I look forward to seeing the service thrive and having a little more competition in this space (along with Pandora, and Rdio).