Does Free Music Service Spotify Offer Hope For The Future?

Is record label-backed music streaming service Spotify the best response yet to the issue of illegal filesharing?

For a few years now the music industry has been desperately scrambling for a business and distribution model that would go some way in persuading the panting stallion of illegal downloading/file sharing/torrenting to, if not get back behind the stable door, then at least to agree to stay in the nearby paddock. Thus far, there’s been little success, and the recent news that 95% of all online file transfers were illegal surely caused no small distress in the already vexed headquarters of the major labels.

Could new service Spotify, currently in an invite-only, beta phase, be the answer to their prayers? Spotify works not via file sharing or downloads, but by providing reasonable quality (around 160kb/s) streams of music via a simple to use interface not dissimilar to iTunes. You can listen to streams for free, with the occasional advert (about once every album, at my reckoning) funding a pool of revenue that then goes to recompense the labels and artists. Further revenue is generated via a membership scheme whereby, for a daily or monthly fee (99p and £9.99 respectively), the user avoids the advertisements and gains invite privileges.

I signed up last week, and since then have had a rare old time ploughing through bits of old back catalogue that I’ve missed, following recommended artist links, rediscovering records I’ve not listened to in years, or treating it as a try-before-you-by service – something that the struggling independent record shop sector would do well to work on embracing.

Spotify might lack the social networking aspect of, but this to me is a strength, rather than a weakness – especially for us users who doesn’t care two hoots about being more of an Animal Collective obsessive than username P4KsBumChum. The sort of refined gentleman who reads the Quietus eschews such showing off, content to gather his closest confidants together to discuss the works of Mayhem in his club over a port.

Yes, there are the occasional technical glitches and gaps in the catalogue, especially in the less-travelled parts of the musical landscape. This will no doubt be addressed as the service develops. You might complain about the adverts, but the monthly sign-up fee answers that. And anyway, there’s something weirdly satisfying about Moira Stewart telling you to pay your tax halfway through an afternoon of Front 242.

Spotify works not merely because it is a carrot, rather than a stick. For the first time, record labels have understood that MP3s are ephemeral, unquantifiable things entirely divorced from the idea of the artefact that so many of us still cherish. You can feel no pride of ownership over an MP3, they merely take time to download and clutter up computer hard drives. Why download an MP3, legally or otherwise, when Spotify provides such a simple way of accessing and listening to it? You might argue that you can’t take Spotify with you on the daily commute, but there’s always fast-developing mobile phone technology to plug that gap.

It’s clear that the current rate of illegal file-sharing cannot be sustained. I’d like to think that most music fans see the need to contribute towards the music-making process if they’re to continue to see artists receive at least some recompense for their labours. Early indications are that Spotify might well be the what record labels, musicians and, most importantly, music fans have been waiting for, for so long. The hope is now that the take-up is not so fast as to impair functionality, and that some of those artists who’ve thus far said they won’t allow their tracks to be featured realise that their ostrich approach is no longer viable, and get involved. Yes Metallica, yet again, we’re talking to you.

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