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30.11.09 | My thoughts on Spotify
Filed under: Music — Tags: , , — Dr. Ivan @ 16:06 — Comments (0)

Spotify is actually a very interesting creature and a great concept. Nonetheless several emerging trends are worrying

The concept

When I first heard rumors about Spotify a couple of years ago it reminded me of the good ol’ Last.fm radio streaming. In fact, it bears absolutely no resemblance to Internet radio whatsoever. As far as I understand it employs some sort of p2p sharing, most probably a variant of bittorrent, in addition to direct downloads from dedicated Spotify servers. This is by no means anything new. The fun part of Spotify’s custom-tailored algorithm is that you are for example are able to fast-forward the song you are playing without (almost) any delay. “Fun” does not however always imply “useful”, and in this case – no, it really is not. I find myself only rarely scrolling though a song, and wouldn’t have been bothered by caching times if they existed (and they do, although infrequently). Then again, others might have it otherwise.

Song library

As of today (30.11.2009), over 5.5 million tracks appear to be available. This seems like a respectable number – also due to the fact that additions are frequent and often rather substantial (the Spotify Team usually posts a description of these on their blog). Despite this I still find it hard to let go of my local collection since approximately half of my 230 albums are simply not available. This is due to the rather self-explanatory fact that preferentially bands de jour are added and for example classical music is largely ignored, aside from a few compilations which have been so horrifically tagged that they resemble search results on YouTube. More on that in a moment. There are basically two feasible solutions to the problem of missing artists: Either (a) waiting for the Spotify staff to add them (would have been nice with a request system so that the most popular demands could be identified), or (b) implementing an import functionality for local collections. I find the latter idea rather elegant and think that it might make the transition quite smooth for new users with an extensive collection of music at home.

Legal issues

Regional restrictions are the bane of Spotify’s existance. Some stuck up record companies deny streaming rights to Spotify: in my region for example, listening to Pink Floyd is out of the question. An entirely pointless policy which does both disservice to the record companies themselved and, more importantly, to the artists.

Naming conventions?

As already mentioned, correct track tagging does not seem to be one of Spotify’s strong points. CDDB imposes rather specific naming conventions, as does Musicbrainz. Spotify on the other hand uses neither and appears not to abide by any uniform set of naming rules. Neither is there an easy system in place to report mislabeled tracks like at Last.fm.

Native Linux client?

There is currently no native Linux client although a proof-of-concept terminal application has been created. This can be fortunately circumvented by using Wine with which Spotify works flawlessly. Some die-hard fans of the platform will find the latter unacceptable, but that is a different story. My view on such issues has always been clear: if it works out of the box without any tweaks in Wine there is absolutely no reason for screaming obnoxiously loud and flaming the developers (there are, however, plenty of other reasons to do so as you will soon see). Admittedly, I would have loved to see a true Linux version – would have been a blast to have Spotify on my Nokia N810.

Mobile device support

A couple of days ago Spotify client’s support for the Symbian platform was officially announced. This is a logical follow-up to the iPhone and Android support which was introduced three months ago. I have tried it and must say that the interface is very streamlined in a true iPhone-spirit. Some strange omissions were made in terms of functionality and options, but then again this is the first release – so what can we expect? At least it works.

The lonely Spotify user and his little scrobbler

Laughed enough at the title? Now then. This is actually when one of the more annoying flaws are made apparent. It all began a while back when Spotify users requested over and over again the ability to scrobble their played tracks to Last.fm. It took literally many months if not years to implement it. Spotify seems in this respect to suffer from the same problems as LastFM and Google. Users are almost never heard and if they are, new functions are implemented unwillingly and at a pace of a turtle climbing Mt. Everest. Even such simple tasks as scrobbling are literally months in the making (mind you, it takes approximately 500 lines of code plus some minimal GUI programming). One can perhaps understand why Google has problems satisfying all of its customers. With its huge staff it is handling itself like an elephant: when poised on a single goal it can go pretty fast, though only in one direction; altering the course even slightly to solve some of the more nagging issues is almost impossible. Spotify however should not suffer these problems still being a fairly young and comparatively small company.

A good reason to bring this up again now is that the mobile versions of Spotify do not have a built-in scrobbler like the desktop client. There can be absolutely no logical explanation as to why it was necessary to remove this simple piece of code during porting. If you were asked by numerous user requests to add the feature the first time around, you can easily stipulate to that loyal listeners will nag about it again. Indeed, requesting scrobbling support was brought up shortly after the release of iPhone and Android ports. The only reply received was a one-line confirmation that Spotify will implement it. Three months have passed and nothing whatsoever has happened.

Playlists

Another negative aspect is playlist editing and playback. These are implemnted in such a way that they appear almost as stilted and cumbersome as playlists on Last.fm (and if there is one thing that Last.fm does a horrible job at, is the playlist handling). Sure, they are simplistic in nature – which also means that they are more accessible to beginners. The result is nonetheless a lack of functionality. For one, you are unable to sort your playlists in any sensible way, neither can you arrange them into groups intuitively. There is also no option to combine them.

Technical problems

Fortunately in the case of Spotify, technical problems are infrequent (at least compared to Last.fm in previous years). However, downtime is not entirely unheard of. Nonetheless since premium users are now allowed to cache and store playlists locally you will likely have at least some backup if all goes dark at the Spotify HQ. In addition to this I have experienced some weird problems with certain albums persistantly refusing to play.

Conclusion

Despite all of my negative comments above, I do find the concept behind Spotify brilliant and a hint of what future has in store for us – both in terms of music and other media services. I am very eager to see where Spotify will go from here, and will not hesitate to pay for the service when enough of the aforementioned problems are solved.

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