Imagine, if you will, what it would be like to own a giant jukebox which contained every piece of classical music ever written. At the touch of a button, you could summon up your favourite Bach cantata, Shostakovich symphony, Mozart concerto or Haydn quartet, or even a Dowland pavane or a Tan Dun film score.

Spotify doesn’t quite meet that ambition. But it’s scarily close. And it’s both free and legal.

Spotify is an Internet web streaming service for music: you connect to the service from your computer, select the music that you want, and the software plays it for you, there and then. It’s distinct from a download service in that the music isn’t stored on your computer for later retrieval or for connection to an iPod: the music is played straight away or not at all.

If you’re prepared to put up with listening to an advertisement break every twenty minutes or so, the service is free: this makes the experience rather like listening to a commercial radio station where you choose all the music. Alternatively, you can pay Spotify for their “premium” (i.e. ad-free) service, at the rate of £1 for a “day pass”, or £10 per month for a subscription.

Spotify will doubtless find most of its usage in the non-classical world, and its coverage of popular music is very high and increasing fast. Its coverage of classical works is also fairly impressive, with a very large number of composers represented, if not every individual work. Spotify say they don’t keep stats on how many tracks they have per genre, but they point out that they’ve just done a deal with Naxos which should get them access to another 110,000 tracks. Broadly speaking, I found excellent coverage of works in the common repertoire, and a good job of covering the more obscure composers, although not every individual work.

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As a test, I tried looking up a variety of works, ranging from the popular (Bruch Violin Concerto) to the mainstream (Beethoven Symphony no.7) to the lesser known (Dowland’s “Can She Excuse My Wrongs”) to the downright obscure (Boieldieu Harp Concerto, Purcell’s Catches, and Judith Weir’s opera “A night at the Chinese Opera”). The Bruch and Beethoven showed up with about a dozen recordings each, the Downland with two. There was plenty of Purcell, but not the catches, and an album each of Boieldieu and Judith Weir, but not the works I was looking for.

You use the service by downloading an application to your Windows PC or Mac, which gives you an interface which will be very familiar to users of Apple’s iTunes music player, but with a twist. The name “Spotify” comes from a combination of “Spot and Identify”, the idea being that as well as playing you music, the software gives you information about the album or artist you’re listening to, and suggestions as to other similar music that might interest you. This works fine for jazz, folk and so on, but doesn’t seem to work at all for classical: the “Artist radio” channels, which are intended to show music that might interest fans of a particular artist, don’t seem to appear on classical works at all.

There are other limitations. If you’re looking for a specific performer or even a specific recording, the chances are that you’re going to be disappointed, since the service doesn’t cover a high percentage of the back catalogue. And the search and browse mechanism is geared to the popular music schema of “Artist/Album/Track”, rather than the classical listener’s preferred scheme of “Composer/Work/Artist/Album”, so it can take you a few attempts and a bit of persistence to get to the music you’re looking for. When you get there, the quality is at around 256 kbps: decent and quite acceptable for most listening, although falling short of the quality you might get from a CD or from lossless compression. And the advertising, while infrequent compared to a typical commercial radio station, is broadcast at a high volume: sufficiently intrusive to make one reach rapidly for the mute button until the ad break has finished.

But these limitations take away little from an extraordinary and excellent experience: having all that music available on tap makes me feel like a small child in a sweetshop (for Americans: a kid in a candy store!). I simply can’t think of a better way to sample different music and learn about what you might enjoy. And if you’re a musical omnivore, it’s even better: the coverage of classic jazz and folk is excellent. You can even look for comedy and dredge up samples of anything from Lenny Bruce and Bob Newhart up to current comics like Jerry Seinfeld.

Spotify is not the first music streaming service, but it’s the first that I’ve found compelling, not least because of the free and day-pass options. The Naxos Music Library has been around for a while now, is better indexed than Spotify, and claims to include over 31,000 different albums. However, at $225 (or €225) per year, it’s expensive, and the quality is less than wonderful (I didn’t find the cheaper “Near CD Quality” version acceptable at all). Naxos.com offers you access to 5,000 albums at a much more reasonable $19.95 per year – but only one track at a time. The other contender is classicalarchives.com at $99.50 per year, with a similar looking coverage to Spotify but considerably better indexed and with a good set of notes about each composer and work.

The music recording industry has struggled to find a way of doing business that allows consumers to exploit the high accessibility to vast music libraries permitted by the Internet, while providing an income stream for the artists and publishers yet still being free for people who really aren’t prepared to pay for the privilege. It’s just possible that Spotify has produced the right way out of their dilemma. If I were currently running a paid-for music download service, I would be afraid. Very afraid.

You can find Spotify on www.spotify.com

David Karlin 11th April 2009