OPINION: After 20 years of music industry uproar over illegal downloading, file sharing and music piracy, it came, inevitably, to this: an online service that lets you access all the music you want, legally and free.
A new music delivery platform called Spotify launched in New Zealand this week, and it's likely to change the way we listen to music. Founded in 2008 by a pair of canny Swedish entrepreneurs, Spotify is essentially your own programmable radio station, and it has become the fastest-growing music provider in the world, with around 200,000 new users signing up every day.
The thing that has made Spotify and similar platforms such as Pandora and Rdio so successful is their embrace of a cunning form of sonic socialism. Rather than join the debate about how to prevent the theft of copyright-protected music, the developers of these sites asked a different question altogether, namely, why own music at all? Just borrow it, bro. Given that internet bandwidth is now relatively cheap, why not dispense with bulky CD shelves or hard drives crammed with pirated MP3s and simply stream the songs you want straight to your digital player instead?
Joining Spotify gives access to an online library of over 16 million songs, with around 20,000 new tracks added daily. Users can build personalised playlists to play at home or share via Facebook or Twitter, check out playlists of new music "curated" by various magazines and music websites, and download smartphone apps to turn their phone into their own personalised transistor radio, spewing out a constant stream of music tailored to their tastes. Those of a masochistic persuasion can even have the entire New Zealand Top 40 playlist delivered to their phone each week.
But, however you use the site, you don't own the music you're listening to; you just have the right to borrow it whenever you like. For cheapskates like myself who're prepared to put up with slightly crappier soundfiles and the occasional ad between songs, it's free, but you can choose to pay $2 per week for an ad-free version and around $3.50 per week for enhanced sound quality. Best of all, the musicians themselves get paid, with record companies and publishers collecting revenue on their behalf.
Given that cheap, legal access to decent online music libraries has been very slow in coming to New Zealand, Spotify can't fail, but there will be casualties. Record stores and paid download services such as iTunes will take a hit as many music fans decide that shelling out to own physical or digital copies of their favourite music is no longer necessary. Commercial radio listeners may also opt to dispense with inane on-air hosts and the Mad Butcher shouting the price of chicken thighs at them in favour of personalised playlists they can stream in their homes, cars and workplaces.
Admittedly, the service is far from perfect. Several major artists have withheld their music from Spotify, including The Beatles, AC/DC, The Eagles and Metallica, and several independent labels have pulled their artists, claiming Spotify's royalty payments to musicians are far too low. Recent releases by Radiohead, Adele and Coldplay are also missing, presumably because there's less profit in a Spotify streaming fee than an iTunes download.
Online critics have also noted there's no sign of Garth Brooks or Hootie and The Blowfish on Spotify, or solo albums by former members of Abba. They say this as if it were a bad thing. Numerous one-hit wonders are also absent, so those desperate to dance around their kitchen to Rick Dees' 1976 smash Disco Duck will be sorely disappointed. Still, I'm sure they'll find a way to pick up the pieces and carry on with their broken lives.
But all gaps aside, the catalogue is extraordinary. I did a quick Spotify search for relatively obscure personal obsessions such as Jamaican singer Leroy Smart and Cleveland punk band Pere Ubu and found enough unfamiliar tracks to keep me engrossed for months.
For music fans with limited cash and no compulsion to own the music they listen to, Spotify will clearly be huge hit. Indeed, Spotify executives reckon their free catalogue is so vast and user-friendly, illegal downloading may soon become redundant. Of course, they would say that. What we can say with certainty, however, is that the global music industry has finally capitulated to the inevitable by agreeing to support a free, legal, all-you-can-eat music subscription service that lets the listener opt out of complex moral arguments around copyright theft and simply get on with listening to the music.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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