I’ve been playing with Spotify for a while now, mostly using it to listen to music at home when I wanted to listen to a song I didn’t own. Recently, thanks to Owen Stephens (via Twitter), I found out that the service also contains a substantial collection of classical music and so could be of use academically to students at my conservatoire.
Spotify is a service which allows you to listen to music for free online through its application which you have to download and install (available for Windows, Mac and Linux via Wine). Its advantage over services like Last.fm radio is that you can search for specific tracks, and as long as they’re licensed to the service you can listen to them in full. It’s funded by advertising, so you’ll occasionally get ads appearing on the app or radio-style audio ads between tracks – the latter are a bit annoying if you’re in the middle of an album or something atmospheric, but a price worth paying in my opinion.
At the time of writing anyone in the UK can sign up for a free account, but people elsewhere must be invited by current users in order to control growth of demand. This may start again in the UK if demand grows too quickly, so beware!
The below is all my personal opinion after trying out the app for a little while. I’ve split it into sections to hopefully aid readability.
Classical coverage is decent but not comprehensive, gauged by searching for upcoming performance pieces at my college. There’s a fair smattering of ‘big name’ performers thanks to EMI Classics, and coverage is likely to improve with yesterday’s announcement of a deal with Naxos (depending what figures in that press release you use, that could be 10-25% of Naxos Music Library available free on Spotify!). Something that attracts me is the availability of musical theatre recordings which is a weak point in all our subscription resources. There also appears to be decent jazz coverage – though this by no means my specialist subject, a few cursory searches threw up plenty of results.
The metadata for classical music sucks. The ‘artist’ can either be the performer (one or more of conductor, ensemble, soloist etc) or the composer. If the composer isn’t the artist, they end up shoved somewhere in the track or album title. Occasionally there’s no indication who the performer is at all! As a commenter on the Spotify blog said, they should be consistent – a good start would be to follow the MusicBrainz Classical Style Guide. This is the end result of shoehorning classical music into an album-based system, when the work rather than the album or song is the key organising concept in classical music. The new iteration of the Classical Music Library is another example of this, and one I may come back to another day.
Thankfully the search function on Spotify works very well, so you can forgive some of the metadata messiness as you do tend to find what you want in the end. Browsing ability is impaired by inconsistency, but works very well for pop, jazz etc – click on an artist name to see everything available by them; click an album name to see the full track listing plus reviews from Allmusic.com; use advanced search features if you want to. Double-click a song title to listen, drag it to your play queue to enqueue it or a playlist name to add it there. All pretty intuitive.
Sound quality is fine – not CD quality but adequate and comparable with paid services like Naxos Music Library and Classical Music Library. I think there’s a bit of compression/limiting kicking in on pieces with a large dynamic range but not serious enough to damage enjoyment. Apparently bandwidth is around 64Kb/s which shouldn’t cause anyone on broadband/institution connections much trouble.
Correction: Spotify’s FAQ says: “We use the Ogg Vorbis q5 codec which streams at approximately 160kb/s.” so it’s a much higher bitrate than I’d heard elsewhere (possibly on a Guardian podcast, not sure). I have to say I didn’t think it sounded *that* good but the higher figure does make sense. I still hope our institutional connection could cope with many users concurrently.
The biggest downside is requiring the application to be installed – the one thing stopping me rolling it out immediately across the student computers in the library.
Give it a go! I’m going to discuss with my boss whether we should be asking IT to install the app on all the library PCs – my only concern at the moment is whether the app will be able to update itself afterwards, because I’ve noticed it seems to have quite frequent update requirements. There’s a lot I’ve not touched on here with the social side of Spotify – sharing links to tracks and playlists using spotify: URLs or third-party apps like Mixifier – as I’ve tried to focus on why libraries should be interested in Spotify now, and need to think a bit more about this side of things. Have a play, see what you think, and let me know if you agree/disagree with my comments!