Spotify – First Impressions

Mar 5th, 2009
This review is based on early impressions of a beta product. It should not be taken as representive of the final product, and it is likely that my cursory examination have caused me to miss a few important features. Also, while very critical in places, it should be pointed out that I am VERY impressed with Spotify, and my criticisms are largely to reflec the way I hope it develops in future versions.

I’ve just started playing around with Spotify, a service which would seem to hit the ‘too good to be true’ warning, and would have done so if I hadn’t seen it covered in the mainstream press.
Spotify Screenshot
Spotify is a free audio player available from www.spotify.com. Unlike other audio players, such as winamp, iTunes1, Media Player or Songbird, Spotify will not limit you to playing just your own music; it will allow you to play any music. Well, any in its library, something which I’ll come to later. While this may sound like a dodgy file-share front end, it is in fact legitimate, fully legal and licensed. The service is ad supported, although so far they appear to be less regular, and less annoying than radio adverts. You can’t skip them, and they pause if you mute your system. However, if the ads annoy you, and you decide you want to go ad free, you can do so for £9.99 a month.

The interface is clean, fast and smooth, especially in contrast to the positively clunky Songbird. It’s styling are clearly inspired by Apple, although the window doesn’t look out of place on my Windows system. Its easy to search for and find tracks, however the interface feels a touch limited at times. For example, if I search for tracks by Queen it successfully finds 4862 tracks, these cover the band, other bands with the word Queen in them (eg. Queen Latifah) as well as albums and tracks containing the word Queen. At the top of the search it provides links, which look as though they should narrow your search, but instead link you to a page about the band/album. This detail is a nice addition, and you can add tracks from these pages, but it can make searching a touch cumbersome. Fortunately it is possible to write quite detailed search strings, and gain control that way. It is also the case that once you have sorted your search results, new results are no longer appended to the bottom. While this is understandable when it comes to maintaining the sort, it could cause problems if your track makes a later appearance.

The interface also has limitations when it comes to playlist management. It is possible to get a track playing in two ways, double clicking it, or queuing it to the playlist. The former begins it playing immediately, and adds the remainder (or a subsection thereof if there are lots of results) of the current search to your playlist in a greyed out fashion. These will be played automatically once the currently playing track has ended. However any tracks that you add manually following this will be highlighted in white, and added immediately after your last manually queued track, or whatever is playing currently. This behaviour is excellent, as it allows for a quick dive into a genre or band, or more careful queing up of songs. The interface also allows you to easily re-order playlists, including bringing the grey, automatically queued tracks to the front, or middle, of your manual playlist.2 However it is not possible to modify this automatically generated playlist, meaning that if I notice it has queued up a track I don’t like, I have to wait for it to play and skip, rather then removing it from the playlist. However this approach does allow one to be listening to, say, a random selection of Rock from 1960-1980, and then easily add a track of interest to begin playing immediately after whatever is currently playing, or at least after the last manually added track.

Spotify will live and breathe on the diversity of its library. Limited selections is a major issue with many digital music retailers, and Spotify suffers similarly. While I was able to find any Queen song I so desired for instance, the selection of Pink Floyd was limited to a few covers and tribute bands.3 Some bands sit in the middle of this continuum, with the odd few tracks being picked up due to collaborations, of compilation albums. I imagine this situation is one which will improve with time, but as it currently stands Spotify will not be replacing many people’s media libraries. However, it is far from a useless selection, and includes a mix of mainstream and Indie labels. A nice touch is that the library also includes a few interviews and other shows, which are sorted into suitable categories and thus will occasionally crop up in automatic playlists. I haven’t yet found out if it is possible to control whether this happens or not.

As well as the few limitations of the library size, it also has a few problems with annotation. For example, clicking the screenshot above and you’ll see that it classes Atomic Kitten as rock, which seems a bit of a stretch, even for categories which are often subjective.

So how does Spotify compare to something like Last.fm? Well firstly Spotify give you far much more control over what you are playing, and is far less dependent on having a browser. It makes it theoretically possible to use Spotify to entirely replace your music library, a task for which last.fm is neither designed nor suited. Both feature mechanisms of being introduced to new music, although only Last.fm’s system dynamically responds to your tastes. Spotify doesn’t even allow you to rate tracks, and I feel it could gain significantly by replicating Last.fm’s Love/Hate ratings, allowing you to completely forbid tracks, or make them easy to find in future. While it is possible to add favourite tracks to a playlist, a favourites system would allow users to easily find ‘my favourite 1970s Rock tracks’ for example. The other major area is the social side of things, one in which spotify is surprisingly lacking. While it is possible to share music and even colaberate on playlists, this is all achieved outside the Spotify player, and even the website. This isn’t perhaps a failiure, but does seem a surprising oversight in this age of social media. However it is possible to scrobble Spotify tracks to Last.fm, so ther use of one certainly doesn’t preclude the other. Overall though the two systems currently perform different functions, last.fm being a site for discovering new music and sharing what you are interested in, while Spotify is attempting to replace the local media library.

One final feature I feel could benifit Spotify is support for local media libraries. While its eventual goal may be to entirely replace local media collections, or at least digital ones, it is not there quite yet. This feature would encourage people to abandon their current local media players more regularly in favour of Spotify, and would also help ease bandwidth for tracks which are already stored locally.

In summary, Spotify may very well be the future of digital music, but that future isn’t quite here yet. However, Spotify is still in beta, and makes a very impressive present.

  1. Which annoyingly I keep Malaproping on and calling iPlayer. []
  2. I realise this talk of automatic and manual playlists is confusing. What I’ve dubbed the automatic playlist is a list of songs cued up through selecting a radio station or by double clicking a track in a search result. This playlist is greyed out and located at the end of any manually queued up tracks; it will only begin playing if it gets to the end of the manually queued playlist, and will automatically extend itself using the same search parameters if it nears the end. []
  3. This does’t actually appear to be a label problem as EMI, Sony, Warner, and Universal are all signed up, among others. []

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