Hands-On with Spotify Music Streaming Service


It's no secret that the music industry has been in a bit of a bind over the past decade or so: they claim illegal downloading has lost them millions in sales while distribution deals with companies like Apple have left the labels feeling as though they've lost control over pricing.

The What's New section is a snapshot of the wide range of artists available.

Meanwhile, consumers have seemingly endless ways to download, stream and discover music. Streaming sites like Pandora, Blip.fm, Hype Machine and Last.fm are all great ways to listen to music from your browser while you're online, but picking specific artists to stream can be a haphazard process. Buying music presents a whole new set of problems, with companies (iTunes, Rhapsody, eMusic, Amazon, Zune Marketplace) that all offer different pricing models and collections of artists.

You can listen to all the "country hip-hop punk" you please!

Spotify (Windows, Mac, Linux, Free BSD), which has had a popular debut in Europe and the UK, is a new music service that hopes to streamline the way we both stream and purchase new music. The company was launched with the blessing of several major labels, in a refreshingly forward-thinking move on the part of the music industry. Because of this, Spotify is able to stream full, high-quality tracks from these labels without fear of retribution. Though not yet available in the US, we got our hands on a beta-code to test out the service.

Adjust the cache, change proxy settings and enable scrobbling in the preferences.

The Spotify client itself is a thing of beauty: the interface is slick and easy to navigate, and the extreme lack of buffering when playing tracks comes from a locally stored cache client-side that's expandable based on your preferences (up to 100GB, not that you would). When you first load Spotify up, you're presented with the top tracks and ablums on the service, as well as what's been recently added. After you've been using the service for a while, the recommended artists that are listed also become a valuable way of discovering new tunes.

Probably best to stick to the automatic cache settings!

If you're in the mood to let Spotify entertain you, the Radio Station will pull from it's seemingly endless supply of 160 kbps Vorbis-encoded tracks (320 kbps if you're a premium subscriber) based on parameters that you set. It should be noted that the streaming tracks are saddled with DRM, although customers in the UK, Sweden, France and Spain can purchase DRM-free tracks through media delivery company 7digital. Choosing more genres will add more flavor to your mix, and you can use the slider to pick which decades you want your music to originate from. Comically, we originally thought that the selected genres became “hybrid-genres,” and would only pick music that could be categorized under all selected. Then we realized there probably weren't too many “punk country hip-hop” bands out there to make for a decent mix.

Sharing playlists on social networks is the new mixtape .

Our favorite feature is the ability to create and save playlists for later. This really adds to the illusion that you now have an unlimited music library on your computer (you know, until you're disconnected from the Internet). Searches are also saved, which is a nice feature but can also lead to a bit of embarrassment when someone notices your recent Bryan Adams or Britney Spears search. You can easily share your playlists to Twitter, Facebook and Delicious, and collaborate on playlists with other users.

Save your searches for later, or drag them into a playlist.

Spotify also has a lot of nice social features built in, like the ability to scrobble to Last.fm and to make widgets for your blog. The downside is that it's not quite available here in the US yet; some people are able to use it via proxy, but the company probably still has some work to do in terms of finalizing label deals before they can officially launch. The record labels should take heart: while actual paid music downloads over Spotify are only available in four countries in Europe, Sweden saw the startup sells more tracks for Universal than iTunes this past year. It seems Spotify has created a nice little package of usability and convenience that works for almost everyone. Well, for those of us lucky enough to have it now, anyway!

Check out the hot albums and tracks under Top Lists.

[Editor's note:  The version of Spotify we tested was the Mac client, though a Windows client is also available. Both versions share identical features]

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