Spotify’s been going since 2008, which in streaming music terms makes it the beaten-up old gramophone of the industry, a kind of musical grandpa, shaking its walking stick at all those young whipper-snappers with their exclusive music videos and their Taylor Swifts.
But does this veteran somehow still have what it takes to win a battle of the bands, battering the competition through a knockout punch of mature apps, huge catalogue, and, well, lack of Taylor Swift?
Exit: stage right
Now and again, there are high-profile Spotify exits as an artist takes their music ball home (Taylor Swift; Thom Yorke); occasionally, new albums show up only after months on sale (Mylo Xyloto — possibly a blessing), or are withheld indefinitely (Björk’s Vulnicura). And some bands are notable by their absence from the service, such as The Beatles.
Spotify’s counter to such grumbles is simple and effective: 30 million tracks. That’s a *lot* of tracks. And, indeed, during testing, we've found ourselves gleefully tearing through music old and new, from popular giants through to relative rarities by Wire and Worm is Green. Smartly, holes on desktop can be filled by integrating a local collection from the likes of iTunes. Still, we could do without Spotify’s passive-aggressive message relating to albums absent from the service. Just leave a blank space, guys.
Saving the good bits
You can find music via search or blundering about the ‘browse’ and ‘radio’ categories. There's been grumbling about Spotify’s search but in reality it’s pretty good. Type a term and you get a results list, broken down into a few each of songs, artists, albums, playlists and profiles. Alternatively, you can see all results on a page of potential music bliss that includes a playlist of probably relevant tracks. (Or, like us, you can type in random stupid words and see what you end up with.)
Beyond the search, you can browse charts, genres and a ‘discover’ channel that offers recommendations based on listening habits (which improve over time — just as well considering the early semi-random selections). You can also access stations based on favourite artists or genres, although they have a tendency to repeat the same tracks quite often and are a bit Captain Obvious when it comes to matching artists.
Given that Spotify’s catalogue is so huge, it usefully makes it simple to stash favourites. The ‘Saved’ button sends content to Your Music, which becomes your virtual pile of CDs within Spotify; additionally, playlists can be compiled from tracks, albums or artists, and saved for offline playback.
Thin green lines
Desktop users can choose from a browser client or native app. Well, we say ‘choose’, but the former’s buried on the website to the point the link may as well be behind a GIF saying “beware of the leopard”. The experience is a bit clunky, so this might be just as well; by comparison, the native desktop app is smarter and more responsive.
The sidebar provides access to all the browsing and saving stuff. Playlist layouts and typography are clear. The colour scheme’s pleasant — all stylish soft greys and blacks, with flashes of Spotify’s green key colour; this draws your attention to selections, current tracks, and the scrubbing bar. However, we could do with the social sidebar being optional; it lurks at the right-hand side of the screen, taunting you about your lack of friends, or bugging you with people’s current music tastes.
On the move
Spotify for mobile used to be a premium-only thing, but now there’s a free tier. You can play all you want, but albums are shuffled, liberally peppered with ads, and you can only skip tracks six times per hour. Pay up and the experience largely mirrors Spotify’s desktop incarnation, albeit with a few limitations (such as no local audio file integration). Handily, streaming and downloaded/synced audio quality can be defined separately (so you can set it to ‘extreme’ when on a fast connection, but ‘normal’ for keeping selected tracks on your device without taking up too much space - or the other way around if you want to download higher quality tracks on Wi-Fi but save data by streaming smaller files when on the move).
Interface-wise, the app proves intuitive and responsive on iOS and Android, if a touch more refined on the former; on iPad, a permanent navigation sidebar and multiple sliding panes make great use of screen space. Spotify also recognises when you’re playing on another device. You might consider this extremely handy (control your iMac using your Android!) or somewhat irritating (no means of streaming on two devices using the same account — although up to three devices can use offline mode simultaneously).
Spotify's popularity is solidified by the number of devices (apart from phones, tablets and computers) it's compatible with.
It's long been on Sonos, but now with Spotify Connect (which works directly through the Spotify app in a similar way to AirPlay on iPhones) the list has exploded. Multiroom systems from LG, Sony, Denon, Bose, Samsung and Philips. Hi-fi kit from Naim, Yamaha and Onkyo. Even Amazon Fire TVs (and Sticks), Rokus and PlayStations now have Spotify on-board. In fact, if you've got a gadget that connects to the internet and can output sound, it's probably got Spotify.
The new normal
Spotify’s streaming quality depends very much on whether you’re a tight-fisted skinflint. If you are, it maxes out at 160 kbps, which is a bit like listening to a modern-day iTunes or Amazon Music purchase through a sock. But pay for premium and you get the 320 kbps option, which is all rather lovely, with plenty of detail and oomph, although, in a few cases, a hint of soupiness compared to Tidal’s lossless equivalents.
If you’re some kind of masochist or on a terrible mobile connection, you can switch down to 96 kbps, which is amusingly entitled ‘normal’. Normal for who? Time travellers from 1998 that would be genuinely scared if digital audio didn’t sound like someone playing a tune on a transistor radio inside a bucket at the end of your garden, that’s who.
Who needs friends?
As reported by Stuff, Spotify’s moving beyond music playback with videos, support for podcasts, and a system that detects your running tempo and delivers tunes of relevant pace. At the time of writing, Spotify Running has only just launched and seems to be lacking the most intersting "Recommended for you" portion that selects tracks based not only on tempo but also the likelihood that you'll actually, you know, like them. Still the curated and genre-based playlists seem fairly well thought-out and prove pretty inspirational when pounding the pavement.
Other than that Spotify’s most obvious extra is its various social features, which we unfairly grumbled a bit about earlier. Because if you’re of a mind to share your fascination for 1981 grey-area post-punk, you can link to Facebook, inspire friends, send people links to your playlists, and then subscribe to other people’s playlists. Lovely.
While it might now be about as fashionable as a pair of flares playing an Erasure album, we think Spotify still has what it takes. The catalogue’s huge, the user experience is mostly strong, and if you’re willing to pay, the audio quality’s pretty good.
Even as a freebie, Spotify’s not too bad, but it's well worth spending that bit of money per month to prevent the same advert incessantly drilling its way into your skull for hours on end.