Firstly, I must come clean, I work for a digital music
company which is involved in digital music streaming and downloads. In no way are the views expressed are the
views of the company for which I work.
They are merely the subjective views of an atypical music consumer.
I say atypical because despite being over 40, I seek out new
bands on the radio, using listen again on 6Music and BBC Introducing
programmes, such as Christian Carlisle’s excellent BBC Sheffield programme. I make an effort to go to at least one gig
every month, including such gigs as the NME New Radar tour.
Also, if I like a band, I will always try to buy their CDs, especially singles, my favourite
My mobile use
In addition, my mobile phone use is also unusual, in that I
have a very old fashioned candy bar Windows Mobile 6.1 smartphone, a Benq E72. This provides my voice and text service, and
also contains a 32Gb microSD card holding the 8000+ tracks that is my music
collection. I listen to this using a
Sony MW600 Bluetooth headset, the combination of which is incredibly reliable. The E72 is a 2G
+ WiFi phone with no data plan, just calls and unlimited text messages for
£10 per month.
I also own what is now termed a ‘smartphone’, an Orange San Francisco badged ZTE Blade flashed with a custom Android 2.2 ROM. This contains a mobile broadband SIM
from Three, providing a monthly allowance of 5Gb of 3G data for £7.50, which
can be used directly or via tethering.
I first began using a the Spotify client at work; the free service
including advertising, and enjoyed the ability to tap into a music catalogue
that included many tracks which I did not own myself. I liked the shared playlists, which were
sometimes used to create office playlists to which everyone could contribute.
The only downside, apart from the appalling quality of the
advertising segments, was the lack of some of my favourite music. I’m a big fan of Spacemen 3, nothing
there. Spiritualized, later releases,
but not all. Sugar, no there. B-sides of older singles, not there.
It did grate that I had these tracks on my phone’s tiny 32Gb
microSD card, and on my laptop, but this was a free service, so I don't think it is really fair to complain.
Becoming a premium
Eventually I decided to take the plunge and become a premium
subscriber. Partly because of where I work and wanting to
see a rival music delivery system, but also due to a desire to remove the annoying advertisements
and allow me to access the mobile client on my Android phone and
download offline content that I didn’t own.
For the first 3 or 4 months, it all seemed fine, I learnt the
quirks of the mobile client and accepted that there were a few faults, but it
was new, so that was to be expected. The
lack of content could be partly solved by loading some of my own music
collection onto a microSD card in the ZTE Blade smartphone.
There was a high point of being a premium Spotify
subscriber. On the top of a 27 bus
heading to Koko to an NME New Radar gig last October I spotted a tweet from the Joy
Formidable that their new single, The Big More, had been released. I fired up
Spotify and started downloading the tracks to listen to for the remainder of the journey. This even included a live version of Whirring,
which was recorded at Koko in March, where I had been part of the audience
swept along by the beauty of the introduction played on a harp.
This immediacy was quite intoxicating. I heard that one of my favourite new bands had
released a new single, and downloaded it within minutes. However, having an offline copy didn’t
prevent me buying the original, which as a CD only sold at gigs I couldn't attend, meant paying a premium for a copy sold on eBay.
This is one of my key reasons for using Spotify; listening to a
new release, especially albums, and deciding whether it was worth buying the CD.
I will always prefer to own the CD, as it provides a high quality archive copy, with decent
artwork. If I consider there are only a few tracks
worth having, I relent and buy digital downloads, but always burn
them to a CD for archive.
So this all sounds like it worked quite well. I had music downloaded offline, which I would
have otherwise had to pay for, and I could access much more music than was
available from my own music collection, on my 32Gb microSD.
However, it never did become my sole music player, and I
learnt that the offline files couldn’t replace the permanent access I had enjoyed
without the subscription. The reasons
are a complex mix of poor application design, restrictive access and lack of breadth
of content outside mainstream music.
Poor user experience
I think the Android application is one of the more nasty
pieces of user interface design I have seen for some time. I realise this is subjective but some really
poor design choices and I can only believe lack of any serious rival has
prevented these being addressed. With no
real competition Spotify has no incentive to fix these issues. There are some very obtuse menu options and idiocy such as the redundant ‘Are you sure you want to exit’ dialogs after you click
on the Exit menu. An important tenet of interface design should be Don't make the user feel stupid, which the Android client fails spectacularly;
- If you update the Spotify application via the
Marketplace, despite claiming that all user data will be preserved, you’ll be
shocked when you realise that all your offline content will have been
removed. Used up valuable 3G data allowance
downloading offline content? Let’s hope
not as you’ll need to re-download it all again.
It can be over emphasised that there is absolutely no warning that this is about to happen.
- On the Android client you cannot alter the order
of items within the playlist. I believe
this is possble on the iOS application, and I had hoped this would be fixed
within a few months, but apparently not.
Clearly I must be meant to edit my playlists using my Windows client, obviously
when I’m out and about I couldn’t possibly want to do this. The only visible update I’ve seen in the Android
app was the inclusion of a Facebook login option. Clearly Facebook login is a higher priority
than a functioning playlist. Spotify have
processes to update the functionality of their Android client, but only for
items they consider worthy of the effort.
- If you do add items to a playlist, they are
added as the next item to be played.
That makes creating a decent playlist virtually impossible as you have
to build it from the end to the beginning, so no linking similar songs together
in the order you think of them, and building it while the first tracks are
playing. This is really basic
stuff. I know it is, because it was in
my media player on Windows CE (and Windows Phone) TEN years ago. It’s also
something I do a lot, while listening to one song, it jars my emotional memory,
and triggers a string of new tracks to add to the playlist.
- And don’t get me started on Bluetooth support. This may be the ZTE Blade to blame, but it is
massively not reliable, it stutters through songs, especially tracks not
already offline, and don’t alternate between using the Bluetooth and the screen
UI controls to change tracks. It all
gets massively out of sync, with incorrect song titles and album art, so you
really have no idea what you are playing. And that poor Bluetooth support also means
that if you pause the music, and the device enters standby, you have to unlock
the phone to restart the music. On my
Benq E72 the keypad may be locked but the pause, prev and next buttons on the Bluetooth
headset are still fully functional.
Even the Windows application has real issues. The auto update functionality means every now
and then I start Spotify, see the playlist appear, only for it to vanish
without warning, or any message, to reappear a minute or so later, updated, and
with no explanation of what might have changed or if content requires to be
Music – here today
and gone tomorrow, or never there at all
To some extent I can cope with the lack of some obscure music
being on Spotify, and I don’t resent artists such as Adele (and her label, XL
Recordings) for refusing to allow her latest album onto the system. If Adele doesn't want to cannibalise CD and digital downloads and doesn't need the exposure Spotify provides to smaller bands, then good on her.
More of an issue is seeing albums you have downloaded
offline vanish without warning, as happened with The Burns Unit, ‘Side Show’. Having got used to listening to this as part
of my subscription, with no advance warning, a message appeared one day saying it was being
removed as it was no longer available.
As far as I am aware, no CD I have every bought has informed me
that the music was no longer available so that I opened the case to find the
silver disc strangely absent.
Value for money
The final nail in the coffin is the value for money. For me it became obvious that it represented
poor value for money. In the six months
I have had a subscription I have never really had more than 10 offline files
that I do not own on a physical CD or digital download.
I could have happily downloaded every track for the price of
one month’s subscription, and even worse, I could happily buy every album
containing those tracks for the price of the six months of subscribing to the
It is sobering to consider that I pay just under £40 per
month for a satellite television subscription with BskyB and £10 of that is for
unlimited broadband. So in terms of content, Sky provide 100’s of television channels,
repeatedly update the EPG and Sky+ system and put a huge amount of effort into usability
of both of these applications.
In comparison, Spotify, for a third of this amount provides a
poor user experience, especially on mobile, with much less valuable additional content to my own music collection
Should Spotify be worried?
Here is the reality – I don’t think Spotify should be worried. I know a much larger number of people who are
very satisfied with their subscription. For
them, the issues I have raised don’t really affect them, and Spotify provides a
very useful means to instantly access a massive amount of music with the added
benefit of social interaction with friends.
Even so I think Spotify shouldn't be complacent. They need to realise that selling subscriptions
does mean that they will have to care more about treating their customers
better. That means all customers, even
if they have the temerity to use an Android handset.
They will also have to deal with artists better, and pay them
properly, or more will decide to remove access to their content.
And finally, I think they may need to reconsider removing
the reliance on Facebook logins for all new users. I was an early user so I still have my original Spotify login. I know that if I needed to use Facebook just to access Spotify I would never have
used it in the first place.
But then, as I've mentioned, I’m an atypical music consumer.