The music service that nobody in the United States could use is now open to… some people in the United States. Spotify marked its July 14 debut by giving would-be listeners a choice: wait for an invite to try its free service, or jump the queue by paying for $4.99/month "Unlimited" or $9.99/month "Premium" options.
Why bother when web-radio stations like Pandora or Slacker already serve up music matching your tastes (more or less), cost nothing and don't make you ask permission to try them?
Unlike those services, Spotify lets you cue up any track you want in its vast, 15-million-song library. You don't have to request a genre or ask to hear music resembling the work of an artist — just type the track's name into the Spotify app's search box and click its Play button.
Logging into Spotify for the first time reminded me of when I first walked into my college radio station's studio: You mean I can listen to anything I want here?
That prospect had drawn Spotify 10 million users in Europe, 1.6 million paying for its premium options. But licensing disputes with record labels kept it offline in the States for so long that the odds of it making an American debut seemed only slightly worse than the chances of the Beatles showing up on iTunes.
The Fab Four, incidentally, have yet to grace Spotify with their presence, nor have a few other name-brand bands such as AC/DC or Led Zeppelin. The service also misses some acts on small, independent record labels. But in general, it has the playful sense of discovery that was ground out of commercial FM decades ago.
Like FM, the free version of Spotify has ads — banners that show up in its Windows and Mac programs and audio promotions that play in between songs. (Most of the latter have urged me to upgrade to Spotify's premium, ad-free versions.)
Because Spotify's desktop programs also present the music already on your computer, you can easily add songs from the service to your own playlists — a crafty move that can lead you to forget which songs you actually own.
What if you don't want to order up a set of tracks, as if Spotify were a jukebox and you had a tall stack of quarters? You can't tell the service "play something interesting" — but you can let your friends do that. By linking your Facebook account, you can listen to any playlists contacts have shared on that site. You can also tune into playlist links in e-mail, web pages or Twitter — such as the playlist of music from or about Washington, D.C., that I've shared.
Spotify isn't placing a time limit on its free service for now, but in Europe it's cut that down from 20 hours a month to just 10. The $4.99 Unlimited plan erases any such limit and the ads, while the $9.99 Premium option adds offline listening and streaming support for iPhone and Android phones — although even the free service will sync your own music files to Spotify's apps for those devices over Wi-Fi.
The Android app I tested showed a few bugs, sometimes presenting a different artist than the one I'd clicked on. It also had a healthy bandwidth appetite, downloading an average of 42 megabytes of data an hour–something to remember if your service imposes a data cap.
I don't recommend paying for Spotify without trying the free version–but first you have to get an invite to try it. And for now, that demands either patience or using one workaround or another to get past Spotify's virtual velvet rope. This limited availability may evoke a different sort of undergrad musical memory: the hipster down the hall who kept talking about obscure bands that nobody could hope to hear anytime soon.