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Free Spotify music service is a real steal

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / July 21, 2011

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Do people still steal music these days? There are so many cheap, legal ways to hear your favorite tunes that it hardly seems worth the effort.

The latest option has just come ashore from Europe. Spotify.com was born in Sweden in 2008, and has built up an audience of 10 million listeners.

No wonder; Spotify lets you listen to pretty much everything ever recorded, for free. And it interfaces with the social networking service Facebook to help you share music with your friends, and get instant access to their favorite songs. It’s the best service I’ve seen for turning music listening into a social activity.

Pandora.com originally opened the free music box for American consumers. Its user-generated radio stations have attracted 80 million listeners nationwide. Tell Pandora you like the Black Eyed Peas, and its software sends their music your way, along with songs from other artists with a similar style.

Pandora gives you 40 free hours of music streaming per month, or unlimited listening for $36 a year. But it doesn’t let you pick and play individual songs; you take what the computer gives you.

Spotify is a giant personal jukebox, with about 15 million recordings on board. You install its software, then run a search for the songs you like. Unlike with Pandora, you’ll never hear a song you don’t want to hear. Create your own playlists, and enjoy.

The venerable Rhapsody.com service has been offering a similar deal for about a decade, but has attracted a mere 800,000 users. No surprise; at Rhapsody, everybody pays after an initial 14-day free trial. For $9.99 a month, users get unlimited, commercial-free streaming and the right to download music to one portable device, like an iPhone. The user can then listen to the music without an Internet connection. For $14.99 a month, you can download to three devices.

Spotify lets you listen to its online library at no charge - but only if you can get in. Like Google Inc.’s new social network Google+, the free version of Spotify is presently available by invitation only, or through promotions being offered by a handful of Internet sites.

For now, the free service in the United States sets no time limit on listening. But in Europe, Spotify now limits users to 10 hours a month, and it’s just a matter of time before American users are put on the clock.

In addition, users must put up with commercials. They’re less frequent than on your typical broadcast station. But as an opera buff, the last thing I wanted was an ad for Coca-Cola just after a show-stopping aria.

So I upgraded to Spotify’s premium service, which Americans can join immediately. As with Rhapsody, it lets you copy tunes to three portable devices for offline listening, and of course, it eliminates all ads. It’s as good as Rhapsody’s most expensive version, but at $9.99 a month, you pay $5 less per month, or $60 less per year. Spotify also offers a $4.99 monthly subscription that provides unlimited ad-free listening, but doesn’t let you listen on your mobile gadgets.

All Spotify versions let you hook up with other music lovers via Facebook. Just connect to the social network, and all your Spotify-using friends appear in the music player. When you hear something you like, share it over Facebook, and other Spotify members can tune in. You can also share your playlists of favorite songs with your Facebook friends. It’s an excellent social icebreaker; you might find a straitlaced attorney pal loves Delta blues, while a skateboarding stoner buddy is into Sinatra.

Spotify isn’t the game-changer it would have been a few years ago. Today, there are online music options aplenty. Google has launched a new service to let users upload music they’ve already purchased, then listen to it on any Internet-connected device. Apple Inc. is set to add a similar feature to its iCloud service later this year. Amazon.com has done the same, and just announced a tempting new offer: unlimited music storage for $20 a year. Upload your entire music collection, and Amazon will play it back for you.

But with Spotify, you can listen to millions of songs without owning them, and pay little or nothing for the privilege. It’s an excellent choice for people who’d rather listen to music than steal it.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @watha.

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