Spotify, Europe's favorite music-streaming service, made its long-anticipated stateside debut on Thursday after signing deals with the big four record labels. (You can sign up for an invite on the Spotify site.) Back in 2009, Slate's Farhad Manjoo explained why Spotify is so fantastic. His piece is reprinted below.
Have British kids stopped stealing music? A recent survey of 1,000 music fans in the United Kingdom found that about 26 percent of teenagers admitted to using file-sharing networks during the previous month. That number is surprisingly small—a year and a half ago, the same poll found that nearly half of teenagers were regularly pilfering songs. The survey suggests that instead of hitting BitTorrent for music, kids are now hooked on streaming. More than two-thirds of the teenagers said they use sites like MySpace Music regularly; 31 percent said they listen to music at their computers every day.
The survey caused a stir in the tech world, where it's long been assumed that file-sharing is on a constant upward climb. Indeed, the finding is somewhat dubious. As others have pointed out, the research presents survey data, not actual traffic stats from file-trading networks. Authorities in the U.K. have also been cracking down on file-trading. A recent government report outlined a series of harsh steps that ISPs should take when they discover piracy—including running monitoring software on people's lines to determine what they've been downloading. It's possible, then, that the survey participants, wary of getting caught, simply lied about their file-sharing habits.
But there is one legitimate reason to suspect that Brits have changed their thieving ways. In the last few months, they've had access to the best music-streaming service in the world. It's called Spotify. And if you had it on your computer, you'd probably quit BitTorrent, too.
Spotify is what iTunes would be like if Apple decided to give everything away for free. The service, which launched late last year, is a stand-alone desktop app that has the look and feel of Apple's ubiquitous music player. Instead of showing you the music that you own, Spotify presents you with an enormous catalog of free tracks. At the moment, there are more than 3.5 million songs, and Spotify adds tens of thousands every few weeks. You can arrange them in all the ways you're familiar with from iTunes—search for any song, artist, or album; make playlists; list stuff by popularity; or just set the whole thing on shuffle. The free version of Spotify is supported by advertising; 30-second spots (some of them quite annoying) play after every few songs. You can avoid the ads by buying a monthly subscription, which goes for £9.99 (about $16.50).
Ready to sign up, my American friends? Not so fast. Spotify is available only in the U.K. and a few other European countries; if you live anywhere else, the service presents you with an apology when you try to subscribe. Why isn't Spotify everywhere? Licensing restrictions—the deals that the company cut with record labels that allow it to stream songs in only certain countries. The company says that it's working to provide access to more people, but at the moment, much of the world is in the dark.
I tested out Spotify this week by using a proxy server—a way to trick the service into thinking that I live near Big Ben rather than in a foggy corner of San Francisco. I was instantly hooked: Spotify didn't have every song that I searched for, but it came pretty close. I found tons of old stuff, plus a great deal of new releases—seven of iTunes' Top 10 top singles were available on Spotify (including "Man in the Mirror" and much of the rest of Michael Jackson's oeuvre).