The Vengeful Polyglot

What is Spotify’s Niche?

Posted on: October 28, 2011

This is a question I’ve been puzzling over since the service was launched in the US this past July. Where does Spotify fit amongst already existing music streaming services, and why has it become so popular?

As per Wikipedia:

Spotify is a Swedish-founded, UK-headquartered DRM-based music streaming service offering streaming of selected music from a range of major and independent record labels, including Sony, EMI, Warner Music Group, and Universal.

Music can be browsed by artist, album, record label, genre or playlist as well as by direct searches. On desktop clients, a link allows the listener to purchase selected material via partner retailers.

Users can register either for free accounts supported by visual and radio-style advertising or for paid subscriptions without ads and with a range of extra features such as higher bitrate streams and offline access to music. A paid “Premium” subscription is required to use Spotify on mobile devices.

It sounds like a pretty nice package, right? Or, in my opinion, it would if we didn’t already have services that fulfilled those same functions. To be fair, Spotify is established — the service in 2008, just not in the US, and it’s been wildly popular in Europe. But as soon as the invite process opened, and I got my chance to give it a go, I found myself having to justify deciding to use it over my normal music providers. I just didn’t think it had anything compelling which would justify using it over the existing options. I just found it impotent.

Let’s review the facts of what services Spotify does and does not provide, so that we can compare it with other options already on the market (or, rather, not necessarily on the market, as the majority of these types of services offer “free” and “premium” accounts).


What Does Spotify Do?

The Spotify application provides several services. It allows targeted streaming, as mentioned above, thought there are some limitations to things like the number of times you can play the same song. Despite some regional restrictions, and particular licensing issues (like with the Beatles), the program boasts an impressively large library. It also allows the importing of your own music catalog (directly from iTunes, if applicable). You can create and share playlists on the fly, as well as being able to collaborate on playlists with friends.

Spotify also supports scrobbling. It also, like Pandora, provides a radio function, however while it doesn’t impose any skip restrictions it also doesn’t allow song ratings to allow the user to “personalize” the radio feature.

Premium members can take advantage of mobile applications for a number of OSs, including iOS and Android. Additionally, with the required Facebook connection (and optional Twitter integration), users can share what they’re listening to with contacts in their social networks.

Spotify spans platforms and services, providing services reminiscent of iTunes, Pandora, and, as well as having social integration. On paper, this is a really good combination, however I’d argue that it’s not quite so convenient as it first appears.


Problems with Convenience

Despite being partially based around streaming music hosted off-site (in the cloud, so to speak), Spotify cannot be classified as being built on the Software as a Service (SaaS) model as it requires the installation of localized software in order to operate. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (part of its functionality is akin to iTunes, the use of which has been ubiquitous even prior to the announcement of iCloud), it is unlike many the model used by many of its competitors, such as Pandora and, which have browser-based clients for improved portability and ease of use.

It should be noted that, at least for Pandora, there is a desktop client available for Premium (“Pandora One”) users, however the use of it is strictly preferential — it operates identically to the net-based version. There may be clients available for similar services, as well, but to my knowledge (which is, to be fair, mostly limited to my age group and a set of unusually-technically-competent, typically-early-adopter users) one of the main draws for these services is the option of using a web client.

By not offering a web-based client, Spotify restricts users to computers for which they have administrative access. This is something that many streaming users may not have seeing as a large part of the market for these services are people who want to listen to music at work or school, away from their personal machines. Perhaps I overestimate the market share that the worker and student group compromises, but all of the anecdotal evidence I have seen leads me to believe that the set of people who use such services almost exclusively use them on machines they do not own and/or are not using consistently; requiring an install is, or at least could be, prohibitive to these customers.

Granted, Spotify is a hybrid program which is still frequently used by users on their home computers for streaming and other functions, but from a strictly streaming standpoint they have limited their possible user base by not offering a SaaS-style client.


Problems with the Day and Age

We live in a technological era and, as pithy and cliche as it sounds, we’re more connected than ever before. I’m seldom without at least two internet-ready devices at hand, and smart phones have grown to have an amazingly high level of market penetration within a shockingly short amount of time. And, particularly where the iPhone is concerned, these smart phones are being purchased by a broader demographic than would have been expected. At this point, there are probably more typically internet- or desktop-based services with accompanying apps than without.

Many of Spotify’s competitors I’ve already mention offer apps, usually with the same services and account-level restrictions and as their web offerings. If the user has a premium account, then the app usually has the same “perks” as the normal client which can be unlocked. Generally, however, there is at least some free functionality involved. This is where Spotify diverges from the competition. In order to have any mobile streaming at all, the user must have a Premium account.

I understand having ads for free users. I understand having limits, like Pandora’s skip restrictions, for free users. I don’t understand, at all, not tapping into the section of users who would use a free app, to try it out on the go, and then possibly decide to upgrade to a paying account. I don’t understand turning your nose up entirely to people who aren’t already paying customers — they’re potential customers, and mobile access is a service we expect as a baseline from music streaming companies at this point. Not having a free option at all is, in my opinion, Spotify full on shooting themselves in the foot.

Casual users are the majority of users, and the market of smartphone users is growing day by day. You can’t just think, “Well, if they want it, they’ll pay for it” when your competitors don’t make them pay for the same functionality. If you were the only game in town, sure, but with the situation as it is and the market already partially saturated, is that an intelligent risk to take? Sure, maybe I have to get two apps if I want both my music and a radio substitution, but so what? They don’t cost anything, unlike Spotify.

In addition to not having a web-based client, to also neglect to have a free mobile app to go with the free account is just really shortsighted, I think, despite having a head-start in terms of popularity.


Problems with Sharing

Fairly soon after Spotify launched in the US they announced a requirement for new accounts — new users must log in and connect using their Facebook account. Other social network integration is optional, but Facebook is mandated. Now, I understand that sharing most details of our lives in a fairly public way is the new “normal,” but to mandate social network integration instead of simply offering it is heading in a new and slightly troubling direction.

Adding to this issue is that there was originally no way to opt out of sharing what you’re listening to. Bowing to criticism, Spotify eventually enabled a “private listening mode” which can be enabled and disabled at will, but the default is still sharing. I find it really, really odd that this is a “when it doubt, share information” model. It would be much more friendly if it were an opt in, not opt out, type of thing. I don’t like that something which, generally, is up to personal discretion (sharing personal and, if not important, at least possibly embarrassing information) has been made requisite for using the service.

Despite how nicely it integrates, this just seems invasive to me. I want to choose what to integrate with Facebook, not have that be the default for services I use. I do understand the allure of sharing playlists over a social network, I just don’t think this is how it ought to have been done.


So, Why Spotify?

Even with these shortcomings, as I’ve said, Spotify would be a great option… assuming it were the only option. It isn’t, however, and I while I understand that it’s received a warm welcome since launching here, I still can’t find a justification to use it except putting pretentiously indie tracks on my Facebook timeline. I find Pandora to be vastly preferable for radio and/or finding new music, and Google Music a much better way of streaming my own music collection. Both offer free options (Google Music is in beta), both have web clients, and both allow me to stream to my other devices without an extra cost. Despite how little I like iTunes (and, if there were an alternative, I really would jump for joy), it also has a more pleasant user experience for desktop listening than Spotify, not to mention an included store for those who haven’t switched over to Amazon MP3.

So, given that there are services that provide similar functionality, were already available before Spotify’s launch in the US (with the exception of Google Music which, granted, is invite-only), and also boast web-based clients and free mobile integration (all without requiring me to share personal information in order to create an account), why on earth should I choose to use Spotify? What is its niche, given that its services, while convenient together, are sub-par or only par for the course?

Well, for me, Spotify has replaced YouTube for trying out trying out new music before buying it, assuming I find it less time-consuming to launch an application rather than open a new tab. Frankly, that doesn’t happen too often. I understand that they’re trying to appeal to those who want to listen to a specific piece of music, everything by a specific artist, or something similarly discrete, but don’t own the music they want to listen to. While this may be a good fit for a subset of people, it’s certainly not the way I operate. Once I decide I want music, I tend to also want to own it; despite the gratuitous number of streaming services I’m a member of, I still use some dedicated music devices and so I like to be able own my music in order to use it on whatever device I so choose.

That said, for my mother, who doesn’t own any devices aside from her laptop, I can see the appeal. But for the tech-savvy crowd who wants the most out of their devices and the services they use on those devices, I just don’t see a compelling argument for using Spotify given the above functionality issues. It just doesn’t do anything new, or better, and the convenience of having hybrid functionality just doesn’t outweigh the downsides. I don’t “hate” Spotify, or think it’s a terrible program, I just can’t really find a reason to use it.

It just doesn’t have a niche.


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Blog by a programmer cum linguist cum writer cum total geek. One who pretentiously uses "cum" in place of any other logical connectives. Direct questions to the Ask Lauren page!

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