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Spotify takes on iTunes in the U.S.

Published August 8, 2011 9:48 am

Review • Cloud-based music service's huge catalog of songs finally arrives stateside.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As I write this on my computer, I'm listening to a diverse mix of tracks from Pink Martini, The Replacements, Bill Cosby, Adele, John Coltrane, Paramore, conductor Leonard Bernstein, Simon & Garfunkel and film composer Jerry Goldsmith.

That eclectic playlist and work-time distraction is due to the new music subscription service that everyone's talking about and pining for, Spotify.

The 3-year-old streaming service, which started in Sweden in 2008 and is now headquartered in London, has finally arrived stateside, and music lovers are ecstatic.

Whether it can supplant Apple's own iTunes as the go-to place for digital music is a more complicated question. iTunes is still a music store where you only purchase songs. Spotify is the latest in a wave of cloud-based music services in which you don't actually own the songs but rather pay for the access to them.

But Apple should be worrying, especially since rumors have been swirling it's working on its own music subscription service — and Spotify shows a lot of promise.

If you are the kind of music lover who likes to own your tunes, stop reading now. Spotify is not for you. But if you're a music hound who likes to gorge on songs, Spotify is a godsend.

First, the music library is diverse and deep. I asked some of The Salt Lake Tribune's biggest music aficionados to throw artists at Spotify's search engine. Almost all of them were in the library, from Neutral Milk Hotel and The Stone Roses to Monty Python's complete discography. It even has a couple of Kid Rock albums that aren't sold on iTunes.

It's got a few gaping holes as well. Of course there is no Beatles (they have an exclusive digital distribution deal with iTunes), Metallica, Led Zepplin and AC/DC. And it will not have the entire discographies to some artists (for example, it has Adele's "19" album, but not her most recent "21.")

Spotify is divided up into three pricing tiers, and the free version is a tremendous deal. For just registering, you get unrestricted access to Spotify's catalog of 15 million songs (that's more than any other cloud-based music service) to play only on your computer for six months. There are no limits on skipping songs like with Pandora, and you can play them on any computer. You just download client software either for Windows or Mac and you get instant access to its vast catalog. You will have to occasionally hear some ads in the free version.

The one downside is the free version requires an invite to join so Spotify can keep the growth rate of its service manageable. New users get a series of invites to pass out to friends, so inquire with people you know to see if you can get one.

For $5 a month, the ads disappear and there are no time limits to listening to the catalog. For $10 a month, the premium service allows you to listen to music on mobile devices like the iPhone and Android handsets with their free apps. You also can create playlists of songs, download them and listen to them on your phone while offline. And for many of the songs, you get a higher-quality version that sounds better than the lower tiers. You don't need an invite to join for either pay service.

The quality of the music streams were good enough for average listeners, especially on mobile devices, and there was practically no lag after starting or scrubbing through a song. But if you're using Spotify on a mobile phone, be careful not to go over your 3G data cap, which is one big disadvantage to using streaming services.

Spotify also can catalog your existing music on your computer like iTunes does, and you can use the software to sync the music you already own to your mobile device. The user interface is simple, but it doesn't introduce you to new music as well as iTunes does.

Apple's software organizes new songs by genres and artists, and has top-10 lists. Spotify has a small list of new releases and an "artist's radio" tab that lists other tracks that feature a particular musician. But the software doesn't really introduce new artists and songs. If you want to find something on Spotify, you have to already know what you're looking for and search for it.

Discovering new music, however, comes in a robust social-networking feature that ties Spotify to your Facebook or Twitter accounts. That means you can see what other Spotify users and Facebook friends are listening to and play their favorite playlists. You also can drag and drop tracks from one of your friends and send it to another friend to listen to.

Though Spotify gives you access to its immense library of songs, be aware that the minute you stop subscribing to the service, any Spotify songs saved on your device are locked.

For a music subscription service, Spotify has almost everything right. It's easy to use and share songs, and it provides a generous access to tracks without having to pay a dime. If you consume music like tourists eat at a Vegas buffet table, this might be the service for you.

vince@sltrib.com

Twitter: @ohmytech

Google+: +Vincent Horiuchi