When Apple shut down the website Lala.com, I wasn’t sure life was worth living. Seems dramatic (yeah, it is), but the hole that not having the service left in my routine was felt almost daily for years, much to my dismay. (And that of my friends, who’ve all heard me bemoan Apple for its corporate pirate style shutdown of the service many a time.) What could cause Apple to take such violent action against a competitor? Simply put, it was an iTunes killer. Lala was a music streaming service. You could stream any of the music in their comprehensive library for a fee, at a much cheaper rate than it cost to buy music off of iTunes. All these years I’ve wondered why no one stepped in to fill the void Lala left. Now, someone finally has. And then some. Someone better buy Steve Jobs a conciliatory cake, because Spotify has come to the U.S.

Spotify isn’t new, it’s been immensely popular in Europe for years. But they finally cut all the red tape and jumped through all the hoops they needed to in order to bring their service to the US. Here’s how it works: They have pretty much all the music you can imagine stored online, and you can stream any of it using various levels of free or paid accounts. The way I’ve been describing it to people is “it’s like iTunes, but it has everything on it.” Sounds pretty good, right? It is. Let’s talk details.

The Library
A service is only as good as the content it provides. I’m an excellent litmus test for the breadth of any music library. Back in the days of Napster and Soulseek, my friends used to ask me for obscure musicians in an attempt to find their limits. Since Lala died, there have been a number of albums that I not only couldn’t find to purchase, but I couldn’t find through, um… less reputable means either. As soon as I activated my Spotify account, all of these albums were at the tips of my fingers. Every Quintron and John Fahey album was waiting for me, and I’m thrilled to be able to hear this stuff again. I’ve yet to be disappointed in a search of Spotify’s library. Man, they’ve even got my cousin’s band on there. So yeah, if you’re concerned Spotify won’t have what you’re looking for, don’t be.

As of now, I have a free account. It costs nothing, which is amazing. It has both sound and banner ads, which I’m totally cool with because, again, free! The sound ads can be a little sneaky. In Pandora, ads are clear. You’re instantly aware that you are no longer listening to music, and are being played a commercial. With Spotify, you’re listening to your playlist, and all of a sudden you’re listening to Katy Perry or Incubus. “How did that get in there?” you think. Then a few seconds later, the voiceover starts, and you realize you were just subtly slipped a commercial. It can be a little jarring. But, again, did I mention it’s free? As far as I can tell, you get a commercial every 5 to 10 songs. Banner ads are fairly prevalent, but we’ve all learned how to ignore those by now.

Time Limit
Most services of this nature put a time limit on the amount of music that you’re able to stream per month. Spotify seems to be very tight lipped about this aspect of their free accounts. They’ve made it clear that their paid accounts have no time limit, which implies that the free accounts do, but there’s no mention of what that limit might be on their website (even on the chart that compares the different levels of membership). Some sites reporting about the service have mentioned a 20 hour per month limit which suggests that it was included in the press release, but it seems like they either haven’t implemented it yet or we wont know about it until we hit it.

Quality of Streaming
I’ve had little to no trouble with Spotify’s streaming. I’ve never experienced a “Buffering” interruption of service. There were a couple instances where certain tracks seemed unavailable, but they were functional a few moments later. The high level of quality here is likely due to something I’ve heard mentioned in a couple of different places, that Spotify uses a lot of ports, and eats up a lot of bandwidth. While I haven’t noticed any significant slowing of my internet while using Spotify, I don’t think I’m especially prone to pick up on that sort of thing.

To say that Spotify resembles iTunes is an understatement. Spotify basically is iTunes, from the basic layout down to many of the icons directly lifted. This is a shrewd move on their part, as audiences respond well to familiarity and a reduced learning curve. But it’s to the point that you wonder if they aren’t purposely baiting Apple.

Multiple Computer Syncing and Last.fm Integration
I initially had some problems syncing my Starred tracks across multiple computers, but that seems to have been cleared up. I’m an avid user of Last.fm, and have had some problems scrobbling the music I’ve been listening to on Spotify to the service, but that is most likely due to Last.fm’s recent database problems (although, suspiciously, my problems seem to be isolated to my use of the service on a single machine, a slightly older iMac). I expect that these are early service bumps in the road and will be ironed out quickly.

I’ve never gotten much mileage out of connecting to friends on other music services. I’m talking about Pandora, Last.fm and Lala here. But Spotify has incorporated this feature in a way that could become quite useful. It’s easy to import your Facebook friends, who then show up in a sidebar on the side of the interface. Click on them and you can see their top artists and playlists. What I’m really excited about is the ability to right click on a track to send it to a friend, where it pops up in their Inbox. Posting tracks to Facebook or Twitter is also a snap, but it merely links to a page with the song title and a link to listen to that track in Spotify. In other words, if you don’t already have Spotify the link is useless, and even if you do you have to open the app to listen to the song. This is maybe the only point where Lala.com’s way of doing things was clearly superior to Spotify’s, as it let you post music to Facebook in a little player where your friends could then listen to it right in their streams.

This is an area where I’m prone to heavily compare Spotify with Lala, as Lala had me spending more money on music then I had in years. Lala was free to use, and you would pay ten cents a track for any song you wanted to stream more than once. Spotify is free to use, and you can listen to songs as many times as you want. So Spotify is the clear winner, right? Well… maybe. It all depends on the time limit issue outlined above. If I can use Spotify for free, for which I’ll happily tolerate the ads, and not regularly go over my limit on a monthly basis, then yes. Spotify is the winner. But if it becomes apparent that I need to be paying for an account, I’ll end up paying much more for Spotify then I ever would have spent on Lala. In this scenario I will not be as happy with this aspect of Spotify as I was with Lala. But will I still be happy with the value I’ll be getting? Most definitely.

So Can You Tell I’m Psyched About This?!?
There’s no doubt in my mind that Spotify is a huge win for anyone who listens to music. It’s reasonable price point and killer functionality are bonkers awesome, and a clearly better alternative to any other currently available method of listening to music. I predict it being a tech milestone for the music industry in line with Napster and iTunes before it, and that it will quickly become many people’s primary music player. Now let’s all huddle around it and swat away any silver aluminum covered assailants that might wish it harm.

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