Spotify fails the OiNK test

Mar 21, 2010

“OiNK”, for those who don’t know, was a Bittorrent tracker, shut down following police raids in October 2007. OiNK’s administrator was found not guilty of the slightly odd charges brought against him, but the site is gone and shall likely never return. <!–break–> OiNK, however, was awesome. And it’s not just me saying that, Trent Reznor said so too:

I’ll admit I had an account there and frequented it quite often. At the end of the day, what made OiNK a great place was that it was like the world’s greatest record store. Pretty much anything you could ever imagine, it was there, and it was there in the format you wanted. If OiNK cost anything, I would certainly have paid, but there isn’t the equivalent of that in the retail space right now. iTunes kind of feels like Sam Goody to me. I don’t feel cool when I go there. I’m tired of seeing John Mayer’s face pop up. I feel like I’m being hustled when I visit there, and I don’t think their product is that great. DRM, low bit rate, etc

The point is that OiNK was a great experience; the fact that the music was free was largely irrelevant. People were certainly happy to hand over money for the experience, as evidenced by the £180,000 or so that users of the site donated to fund the running costs. OiNK was a site for music fans, by music fans; what was missing was a direct means of paying the musicians for having created the stuff in the first place.

Apple’s iTunes store wants us to pay per track, with DRM built in. For a whole bunch of reasons, this is bad. DRM is simply awful under almost any circumstances, but the pay-per-track approach means that it’s hard to experiment with new music. Figuring out whether you want to pay for music might require listening to it a few times first, and iTunes doesn’t support that.

But there’s a rival model, one which - conceptually at least - resembles OiNK’s all-you-can-eat access to music: Spotify. Spotify provides instant access to a large catalogue of music for free, with the only downside being that you are exposed to annoying advertising. Spotify pay the artists (or, more accurately, the record labels) for each time you listen to a track so, in theory, everyone should be happy. For those who can’t stand the ads, or want access to higher-bitrate MP3s and the ability to download tracks to their mobile devices, Spotify provides a premium membership for the slightly-too-high figure of £9.99/month.

I like Spotify, I use it almost every day and I believe that it - or something like it - is the future of music distribution. But it’s still nowhere near as enjoyable or useful as OiNK, a site cobbled together out of volunteered time, open source software and a healthy disregard for over-zealous copyright enforcement. Despite having plenty of venture capital behind it, it fails to create the sense of being the “world’s greatest record store”, at least in my opinion. So, why is this?

The first, obvious, answer is the ads. They’re intrusive and annoying, and Spotify’s incentive (to get people to upgrade to premium accounts) is to allow ads to be as annoying as possible. The software does a reasonable job of preventing users from muting the sound whilst the ads are playing, and ads are frequent enough that they can disrupt the listening experience. The only solution here is to pay up for a premium account - I’ll return to this later.

Secondly, there are some lacunae in Spotify’s music library. Obviously, there’s no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Led Zeppelin, no Pink Floyd or any world-beating band from the era when record labels truly ruled the world. The back catalogues of these bands are too expensive and, in the case of some, it may not be possible to provide their music as individual tracks. However, it’s hard to argue that depriving Spotify listeners of classic rock is really a problem - if you like Pink Floyd you’ve probably already bought their albums and, whilst it may prevent new listeners from discovering the band, it feels easier to simply accept that this music is in a different category, not part of the online music scene. What annoys me is not being able to find a decent version of Final Solution by Rocket From The Tombs, or pretty much any of Steve Albini’s output, or the impossibility of tracking down that old b-side that you know exists somewhere, just not here. When something didn’t exist on OiNK, you could request that other users scour their own music collections to see if they had a copy to share; Spotify presents no such option.

Spotify also does a poor job of recognising the existence of a community of Spotify users, at least within the confines of its software. It’s five years since jwz pointed out that all software should be social, but Spotify doesn’t seem to have noticed. There are no reviews, no comment threads, no user profiles, no simple means of sharing playlists, although the functionality to edit and share playlists with others does exist. Spotify pulls in some review and biographical information about albums and artists (from Allmusic, I think), but there’s absolutely no user-generated content. Sometimes the biographies contain links to other artists, and if those artists are on Spotify then you can see their tracks and play them, but sometimes they just aren’t on Spotify at all. There’s a “related artists” feature which serves as a basic means of discovering new music - if you like the Pixies, you’ll probably like the Smashing Pumpkins - but it’s crude and obvious. It lacks any sense that anyone cares about this information, really wanting to impart that you have to listen to this because it’s awesome. You’re left alone to choose, to play what you already know that you like, unless it happens not to exist in the Spotiverse. Rather than spending an afternoon in the world’s greatest record store, it’s like spending an afternoon in a giant warehouse stacked high with alphabetically-sorted CDs of bands most people like.

I can’t review Spotify without mentioning the diabolically awful “Home” page. Have they ever tested this on anyone? Seriously? It contains a list of “What’s new?”, which seems to be a random selection of stuff they’ve added recently. This can be admirably eclectic - right now I’ve got Lady Gaga, Cheryl Cole, “Jazz Acetate Collection” and something called “In Christ Alone”, but I’ve no idea why they expect me to find this interesting. There is a “more” button, but this simply returns a different random selection of recent stuff, often containing one or more of the items that you started with. After five or so clicks, most of the “What’s new” items will have appeared once already, so you’re left with the choice of giving up or clicking endlessly in the hope of finding something interesting, never knowing if one more click might yield something as yet unseen. Beneath that is an “Artists you may like” suggestion box, which, to be fair, is reasonably accurate.

So, having said all of that, is it worth revisiting the option of paying for Spotify? After all, their business model depends on people buying the premium option - they make a loss on ad-funded users - and I want to see Spotify succeed. Ultimately, I’m not sure that £120/year (more than my broadband fee!) is sufficiently enticing for the service that they provide. I could buy an album a month for that, and at the end of the year I’d have 12 albums; with Spotify I’d have nothing. If I felt that Spotify might introduce me to something genuinely amazing, if I felt that there was a community of people on Spotify that I cared about, if I felt that my Spotify profile - my playlists, listening history, recommendations or reviews - had become part of my virtual personality, I might want to pay to ensure access to it. But there’s almost no pain in walking away from Spotify, and resultingly no reason to want to pay for it when there’s a usable free option available. As annoying as the ads are, benefit of not hearing them again does not feel like a good enough justification for paying.