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Online music station enters social media fray

On July 14, music nerds and social media geeks alike joined hands in celebration over the U.S. launch of the music-streaming service, Spotify. Much anticipated in the U.S., Spotify was originally released in October 2008 to a select number of European countries – including Sweden and the U.K. After striking deals with all four of the major record labels (Sony, Warner, EMI and Universal), Spotify has finally opened its catalogue of almost 15 million songs – with more being added each day – to American users. While music lovers have many listening options online, Spotify makes its mark as not only a fun tool for discovering music, but also for connecting with your Facebook and Twitter followers.

Right now, the only way to get a Spotify subscription is via an invitation from Spotify itself, or from one of your friends who uses the service. However, once you have access, the music world is your oyster. You can listen to individual songs or entire albums from just about any artist you can think of, from hip-hop and rock to classical music. Although, there have been a few holdouts. Additionally, in a feature that has been rolled out in the last 72 hours, you can listen to “Artist Radio” stations, similar to those on online radio giant, Pandora. Search for an artist such as Ben Folds, and you’re given an interactive radio station built around artists similar to your search.

Giving listeners the freedom to choose their own playlist is what has traditionally separated Internet radio from its terrestrial counterpart. With its social media aspect, Spotify distances itself from other online services as well. Spotify listeners now have the ability to get even more personal with their followers through the service’s playlist sharing feature. Artists have already started using the feature to promote their music and connect with fans. Unlike other Internet radio services, Spotify provides a means for PR practitioners to engage audiences they are trying to reach through social media. Social Media strategists such as Shonali Burke, who runs her own consulting company,  told inVocus in an email, “What I do think is neat is the way you can share your Spotify playlists with your Facebook friends. You could take that even further, as Harrison Kratz (@kratzpr) did during a recent Twitterchat, by sharing a Spotify playlist customized to the theme of the chat, for participants to listen to during the duration. That’s a great way to set the mood and get people more engaged.” One of the best ways to attract and keep followers is to add a personal touch to your social media accounts, so why not create a playlist of the most played songs in your office to share via Facebook? Or perhaps your company just came out with a new TV commercial that includes a song from an up-and-coming indie band. Create a link to the song on Spotify, and attach it to a tweet. (That last tip should hopefully cut down on the number of “what band is this?” replies that are bound to flood your @Mentions tab.)

The big catch surrounding Spotify are the ads, both visual and audio. Whether you listen to competitor Pandora or terrestrial radio, a commercial appearing on a radio station is incredibly common, but a 30-second ad popping up in-between tracks while you’re listening to the new Bon Iver album can really ruin the experience – though the band supports the service. For a commercial-free Spotify experience, you’re going to have to pony up $4.99 a month, or $9.99 for no ads, better sound quality, and access via a mobile device. The jury is still out on whether or not the upgrade service removes it as competition for terrestrial radio. Currently, there are 70,000 paying Spotify users. Its new “Artist Radio” feature might also turn would-be users away. While it’s nice enough, allowing listeners to find other artists similar to their favorites, isn’t as interactive as Pandora’s. Unlike that service’s feature, Spotify lets listeners skip as many songs as they like, but they can’t “like” a song or add additional artists to the station to which they’re listening.

It should be noted that a lot of the features present on the relatively newer Spotify are awfully similar to another online music-streaming service, Grooveshark, which has been available to U.S. users for a few years now. While that may be the case, take note that Grooveshark’s catalogue is reliant on users uploading music, and has not necessarily been given the good graces of the labels themselves. This aspect has led to questions of Grooveshark’s legality, and its mobile apps have been pulled from both Google’s and Apple’s marketplaces. Spotify might also be facing some legal trouble. News broke late yesterday that Spotify is being sued for patent infringement, though it’s a far cry from the legal battle record labels can put up.

While Spotify is new and growing, and getting plenty of buzz online, it remains to be seen how much it will eat into Pandora’s 100-million user base. Terrestrial radio stations will be watching closely as well. With a shift toward giving the listener more control over what’s playing on their speakers, traditional radio may find a new way to respond.

–Jeff Peterson

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