/ Technology

Spotify – do we deserve unlimited ‘free’ music?

Woman downloading music on laptop

Music-lovers are outraged by Spotify’s decision to limit the free music they can listen to, and some have announced a return to piracy. Can we really expect an all-you-can-eat buffet of music whenever we want?

Most Spotify users don’t pay for the service, and under new rules (coming into force on 1 May) they’ll see their monthly listening allowance halved to 10 hours.

There will also be a limit of five plays per track in total. If you’ve got a new favourite must-listen track you want to hear night and day, you’ll either have to dig deep into your pockets and pay Spotify, or find it somewhere else.

Ads were a small price to pay

Since its UK launch in 2008, I’ve viewed Spotify as pretty much a no-brainer for anyone who’s even remotely interested in music. With millions of tracks available free and on-demand, your playlist being interspersed with some moderately annoying ads seemed a small price to pay.

I’ve used it to discover new music, share playlists with friends and, crucially, check out tracks I later went on to buy. Yes, by handing over real money to Amazon, 7digital or Play.com in exchange for owning an MP3 download or a CD.

Not a novel concept, but one that apparently seems alien to those who see only two routes to online music nirvana – streaming or piracy – both of them ostensibly without paying.

Spotify has tweaked its service over the years, introducing a Premium service for £10 a month which offers offline playlists and the ability to sync your music with your smartphone.

A more reasonable (in my humble opinion) £5 gives you access to unlimited ad-free music, and this is the option that I find more appealing. Not so appealing that I’ve yet signed up for it, however. I’m just not sure I’m ready to pay for what is effectively music rental. Music I really value is worth paying 69p a MP3 track for, or £5 per album download.

Get over it and cough up

Ultimately, Spotify has to start making money. Despite having 1m paying customers, the company lost £16.6m in 2009. Each time a track is streamed, Spotify must pay the record industry 1p in royalties. Multiply that by the millions of tracks played each day, and it soon adds up to a lot of negatives on the balance sheet.

Plus revenue from those annoying ads clearly isn’t adding up to enough to sustain its survival. And as it tries to move into the US market, pressure is growing from major record companies to reduce the generous free music offer it’s making to consumers.

So it’s time for Spotify to show some tough love to loyal users. Get over it, people. From May subscription-free Spotify will still be good, just maybe only half as good as it used to be. Other free online streaming sites do exist – I use Mflow, but rivals We7, Last.fm and Grooveshark all offer similar services.

In my view there’s still no excuse for music piracy – expecting a limitless supply of free music is simply naive. Spotify’s doing a reasonable job of juggling consumers, record companies and its own interests, and something clearly has to change. Unfortunately, when it comes to music, it’s proving impossible to keep all the people happy all the time.

Emily says:
15 April 2011

It’s disappointing that Spotify’s having to go down this route. I probably wouldn’t listen to more than 10 hours a month anyway, but limiting us to five plays of a song is definitely going to have an impact on my Spotify use. It’s also going to render any playlist feature almost useless to non-paying customers, as they’ll only be able to listen to any playlist in full five times.

Like Al, I’m not willing to pay for what effectively mounts to music ‘rental’, so paying for Spotify doesn’t really appeal to me – but also like Al, I do use it to inspire purchases of songs, or more often whole albums. Which, in the latter case, for me means buying a physical CD (I like to have a physical copy of my music, not just a download!) – which can’t be done via Spotify itself. And while I like the idea of supporting Spotify by downloading MP3s direct from it on the odd occasion when I do which do buy them, at what seems to be 99p a track (judging by a quick look around some of my current playlists), this is a bit much when the same tracks can be bought elsewhere for 30% less.

Stephen says:
29 April 2011

What’s wrong with paying to rent music? There isn’t much you get for free in this world. It took me about 6 months to make the jump to premium and I’ve never looked back (except when Bob Dylan’s back catalogue vanished.) I stream my playlists over a smart phone and bluetooth to my car stereo as a drive around; I stream anything (almost) I want to listen to while traveling on the train and I have music sent wirelessly around the house to whichever room I am in. (If I get really nostaligic I still have vinyl and my trusy old technics to remind me what moving parts was all about!)

No worries about losing or scratching CDs, no worries about leaving just the track I want to listen to at home and hours of fun after a night in the pub finding and reminiscing about old favourite albums long since lost or lent and never returned.

Cloud computing, video on demand, music on demand, it’s all the direction of travel. Spotify makes it work and it is the future. It’s just a question of when you choose to embrace it.

The American music industry obviously hates it because they don’t own or control it. And they make more money from all you people out there that like to ‘own’ your music!

I can but 20 albums a year and own them, or for the same money have a near infinate on-line juke-box. No brainer.

Finally, and this is a personal view – I have no link with Spotify or any other part of the music industry), I would rather see a relatively independent organisation like Spotify controlling the software, content and most importantly pricing of rental music rather than a cartel of the big publishing companies. Imagine the most restrictive practices of Apple and Sony joining other big record labels combining to deliver music on demand but in a way where they set pricing and introduce software that can’t be copied, modified or moved without paying again.

Spotify might be as good as it gets – enjoy it while you can. That’s what I say!

Rover says:
16 April 2011

Why all this fuss from people who don’t pay a penny for Spotify, or do anything to support the company?

I’m now a Premium subscriber, as I like to use the service abroad, but I also think we need to pay our dues for a brave and innovative business model, if it is to survive in an increasingly commercial world. Spotify also needs to protect its paying users from those that just expect something for nothing and degrade the service through over use.

I don’t believe in any free music – it should be paid for – The musicians and composers need to be paid to earn a living.

The only thing I think is wrong is being expected to pay just to change formats.

When I buy a performance on one format then I must be able to change it’s format to suit my needs whether CD VHS DVD or mp3. I’m not selling copies on and I only listen to one format at a time.

I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not completely free, you have to put through two-three ads every three or so songs on the ‘free’ service.

Good musicians make most of their money from live concerts, and that’s how many of them like it.

Having free services like Spotify or Last.fm introduces you to new artists, making you more likely to buy their albums and also more likely to their gigs.

Sorry – I have to disagree.

I have never bought a record after listening to it on a “free” site. Though I have bought a few 100 after listening to them on the radio – which is one reason why the publicists send them to the stations – and still do.

Quite frankly “good musicians” are a matter of opinion. I’d hazard a guess that your opinion of “good” is not mine.

Interesting Richard – listening to them on the radio is very much the same as listening them on Spotify, except you don’t have presenters getting in the way of the music. You still have ads and both are free.

And when I say ‘good musicians’ I mean ‘good at their trade’ – not necessarily that I like them. I don’t like Justin Beiber, but I’m sure he makes most of his money from live shows. Plus, I’d be willing to bet that we like quite a few of the same artists…

Mark says:
17 April 2011

Just to provide an alternate experience, I HAVE bought tracks as a result of hearing them through last.fm’s mixed radio or sampling on them Spotify.

Whether we deserve (ad supported) unlimited free music is beside the point. Is it a business model that is sustainable? That’s the question. Clearly, Spotify haven’t found a way to make it work.

It’s easy to see why. You’ve said so in your article. Why pay for the premium service when the free one does exactly what you need? If the original strategy envisaged users switching from free to premium, then I think that was a little naive of them to believe they would go for it.

tl; dr: the free service was too good a value to offer, so they had to cut it.

I have to question this too. Just because something has ads, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have to pay for it. Magazines aren’t free and they’re full of ads. You don’t get into the cinema for free if you get there early to catch the ads. You get the picture.

The ads are just one part of Spotify’s income. Like most businesses, they probably need more than one income stream as they grow – and crucially, to keep the service to a high standard that can beat its competitors.

The new pricing structure seems pretty fair to me, although I’d like to know more about whether the artists get more as a result.

Probably not – I am 80 and dislike virtually all modern music since Elvis and the Beatles.

I’m pleased to hear Spotify are putting in place policies that help manage the capacity of the Internet – something that we all have to share for business and pleasure.

A limit of five plays per track seems more than reasonable. It doesn’t make any sense to stream megabytes of the same content over and over again, across a service with limited bandwidth and degrade everyone else’s usage – Spotify or otherwise.

And for all the whingers that want to hear the same tracks played ad nauseam, why not use a free
technology that doesn’t degrade other people’s enjoyment? It’s called radio.

Whilst I use Napster and happy to pay £5 a month for the service, I am pleased to see Spotify introduce some paid competition simply so that it remains a competitive market with more than one provider to choose from and a different pricing planwith it. It would be sad to see Spotify fail simply because the sums do not add up..

As the article mentions no music is really free and for those that love their music why would you begrudge the musician making some money out of your enjoyment from listening to the track.

bechet says:
10 May 2011

I use Spotify both to decide whether to buy a cd and, out of curiosity, to listen to something I have read about and probably shan’t want to buy. Or simply to find out more about an artist’s work. I am sad that use is now limited but certainly can’t complain ~ they have to make a profit and there was little incentive to joint the ranks of the paying customers (which I shan’t join anyway since I can fit my use into the new limit). If we don’t like it we can always vote with our feet (or mouse).