After I finished a talk in Tulsa, Okla. a few weeks ago, I let myself open a present: my invitation to Spotify, the European streaming music service. It showed up stateside roughly a month ago, and showed up, tantalizingly, in my email a few weeks later. I've been having a blast ever since I downloaded it, particularly digging up music that I somehow never managed to buy in a digital format. My 13-year-old son seems a little obsessed with it, too, and it's allowed me to open up his eyes to the wonderful world of David Bowie and Steely Dan.
I'm guessing that the big thing Spotify will bring to the online party is the realization that subscription-based music services just make sense. Since music has slowly waned in terms of being a physical object that you had to purchase, buying the right to stream far more music than most of us could ever own -- for a low monthly fee -- finally seems like an idea whose time has come. Of course, Netflix has paved the way, helping people embrace the concept that video content is sometimes better subscribed to than owned.
Spotify does have a free version that includes a minimal amount of ads, but other plans, at $4.99/month and $9.99/month, are not only commercial-free, but offer more features. The $9.99 version lets Spotify run on any mobile device. It's beyond obvious that such a service could give iTunes (with which Spotify can be integrated) a run for its money. Though I haven't shelled out for a paid version yet, I can feel it coming. It's amazing how having 15 million songs available on your laptop can suddenly make your iPod, with its mere thousands of songs, seem positively deprived, even if Spotify's catalog does have its holes.
OK, interesting enough. But why is Spotify the focus of a social media column? The answer is in the other intriguing thing about Spotify: the matter-of-fact way in which social media is integrated into the experience, not as an afterthought, but almost like oxygen. Something that appears to be in the background, but also has to be there -- because sharing content is now just part of the media consumption experience.
In some sense, it always has been. Eons ago, sharing content meant discussing last night's episode of "Knots Landing" over the cubicle wall. Today, it means talking about "American Idol" in real-time on Twitter -- and sharing playlists on Spotify, seeing what music friends have sent you, and broadcasting what you're listening to on Facebook.
By contrast, about five years ago I had a comp subscription to Rhapsody. I liked it quite a bit, but social media probably wasn't even considered as a possible feature of the service. We just weren't there yet. I'm writing this column on a plane without WiFi, so I can't check it out, but I'd imagine that social is now grafted onto Rhapsody, as it is grafted onto iTunes via Ping. It has to be.
Now, I know that Spotify isn't alone when it comes to letting people share music, or tell people what they're listening to, online. It seems that the main way services like Pandora and Turntable.fm advertise themselves is through users' status updates; I think that's how I've gotten to know about both, and social media is probably how many of us will also learn about Spotify. So, let's leave it at this: Spotify is yet another example of how social is simply part of online experience now -- not separate, but integral.
Even two or three years ago, we might have called something like Spotify a social music service. Here in 2011, the social is understood.