Have British kids stopped stealing music? A recent survey of 1,000 music fans in the United Kingdom found that about 26 percent of teenagers admitted to using file-sharing networks during the previous month. That number is surprisingly small—a year and a half ago, the same poll found that nearly half of teenagers were regularly pilfering songs. The survey suggests that instead of hitting BitTorrent for music, kids are now hooked on streaming. More than two-thirds of the teenagers said they use sites like MySpace Music regularly; 31 percent said they listen to music at their computers every day.
The survey caused a stir in the tech world, where it’s long been assumed that file-sharing is on a constant upward climb. Indeed, the finding is somewhat dubious. As others have pointed out, the research presents survey data, not actual traffic stats from file-trading networks. Authorities in the U.K. have also been cracking down on file-trading. A recent government report outlined a series of harsh steps that ISPs should take when they discover piracy—including running monitoring software on people’s lines to determine what they’ve been downloading. It’s possible, then, that the survey participants, wary of getting caught, simply lied about their file-sharing habits.
But there is one legitimate reason to suspect that Brits have changed their thieving ways. In the last few months, they’ve had access to the best music-streaming service in the world. It’s called Spotify. And if you had it on your computer, you’d probably quit BitTorrent, too.
Spotify is what iTunes would be like if Apple decided to give everything away for free. The service, which launched late last year, is a stand-alone desktop app that has the look and feel of Apple’s ubiquitous music player. Instead of showing you the music that you own, Spotify presents you with an enormous catalog of free tracks. At the moment, there are more than 3.5 million songs, and Spotify adds tens of thousands every few weeks. You can arrange them in all the ways you’re familiar with from iTunes—search for any song, artist, or album; make playlists; list stuff by popularity; or just set the whole thing on shuffle. The free version of Spotify is supported by advertising; 30-second spots (some of them quite annoying) play after every few songs. You can avoid the ads by buying a monthly subscription, which goes for £9.99 (about $16.50).
Ready to sign up, my American friends? Not so fast. Spotify is available only in the U.K. and a few other European countries; if you live anywhere else, the service presents you with an apology when you try to subscribe. Why isn’t Spotify everywhere? Licensing restrictions—the deals that the company cut with record labels that allow it to stream songs in only certain countries. The company says that it’s working to provide access to more people, but at the moment, much of the world is in the dark.
I tested out Spotify this week by using a proxy server—a way to trick the service into thinking that I live near Big Ben rather than in a foggy corner of San Francisco. I was instantly hooked: Spotify didn’t have every song that I searched for, but it came pretty close. I found tons of old stuff, plus a great deal of new releases—seven of iTunes’ Top 10 top singles were available on Spotify (including “Man in the Mirror” and much of the rest of Michael Jackson’s oeuvre).
In the years since music went digital, I’ve experienced several moments of wonder. I was there when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod. I remember when the iTunes Store finally made it possible to buy any song I wanted. And I couldn’t get over the first time Pandora introduced me to terrific music I’d never heard before. But nothing has matched the excitement I felt, back in the fall of 1999, when I learned from my college roommate about a service that seemed to have absolutely every song ever recorded, all for the taking. Napster was great not only because you could get any song you wanted for free but because you could get music that you didn’t know you wanted. I would spend hours just looking for new stuff—if you found someone with one song you liked, you could check out all the other music he was listening to and then use those songs to find other people with similar tastes. No music service since has been able to replicate that sense of liberation—the feeling that all of the world’s music was yours.
But Spotify comes pretty close. To be sure, it’s not the first streaming service to hit the market. Rhapsody, which can stream millions of songs to your computer or other devices, launched in 2001. But it’s not free—the service, which has attracted hundreds of thousands of loving fans, goes for $12.99 a month. Napster itself later turned into a similar subscription app. Last year, MySpace launched a streaming site that offers millions of songs for free. MySpace users took to the service—it now serves billions of songs a month—but I’ve found its cluttered, clunky interface too annoying to deal with.
Spotify, by contrast, is the least hassle of any streaming service I’ve ever used. Because it runs on the desktop, it’s more responsive than MySpace’s Web app, and it lets you browse music more easily. When I searched for songs by Nirvana in MySpace Music, I was presented with Nirvana’s cluttered MySpace page—not what I was looking for. In Spotify, I got a huge track list, arranged by album, of all the Nirvana songs in the catalog. This included the 2005 compilation album Sliver: The Best of the Box, packed with demos and outtakes, including a 1985 demo of “Spank Thru”—the only recording ever released by Fecal Matter, Kurt Cobain’s first band. The demo doesn’t sound too great (Cobain slurs through the song), though that’s the point—the surprise is that this guy would later become who he was. Listening to Spotify, I had several such moments of surprise; I found alternate versions of old songs, and new songs by old favorites, and dozens of songs that I’d long forgotten about.
A word of caution: My enthusiasm for Spotify is in part a product of special circumstance. Apparently because I sneaked in through a proxy server, Spotify didn’t serve me any ads at all; I’m sure I’d be less cheerful about it if I’d had to suffer through a commercial break every 15 minutes. I’m guessing I’d probably still keep listening, though; after all, that’s fewer ads than radio. The other big hitch: You can’t listen to the music away from your computer. The good news here is that back in May, Spotify showed off a soon-to-be-released mobile version that works on Google’s Android platform (and even when you’re out of range of a cell tower). And where there’s an Android app, there will surely be an iPhone version as well.
Will Spotify ever come to America? At the moment, that’s unclear. Music labels have been asking Spotify to pay exorbitant fees to stream music in the U.S.; even if it does make it across the pond, then, a local version would probably be overwhelmed by ads. The labels would be wise to remember, though, that country-specific restrictions rarely work anymore. My colleague Juliet Lapidos recently purchased that awful Catcher in the Rye“sequel” even though a federal court has banned its publication; she got it from Amazon U.K. Meanwhile, even though it’s meant only for Americans, people across the world have found ways to hack into Hulu. And so what if Spotify’s not technically open to Americans? I’m listening to it right now, for free, and I can see the Pacific Ocean from my window.