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Online Music, Unshackled

Thursday, 28 Jul 2011 | 12:12 PM ET

Everybody seems to think that record company executives are big, greedy dunderheads. “How dare you charge for music?” the college set shouts. “Music wants to be free!”

AP

Well, the recording executives may, in fact, be big, greedy dunderheads. But over the years, little by little, they’ve tried to make online music sales fairer and more convenient.

Today, Web music services are spread across the entire price/convenience/permanence matrix. Some offer music that’s free and legal, but you can’t choose exactly which songs play (Pandora.com).

Some let you download song files to own forever for 79 cents to $1.30 each (iTunes and Amazon.com). Some let you rent music — that is, listen to all you want for a flat monthly fee, but you’re left with nothing when you stop paying (rdio.com, Napster.com, Rhapsody.com).

And some services are illegal.

This month, though, the world took a great step forward toward the holy grail: free, legal, song-specific and convenient.

After years of pulling out its corporate hair in tufts while negotiating with the music companies, Spotify has finally brought its service to the United States.

If that means nothing to you, then you’re clearly out of touch with the Europeans. For three years, they’ve been going crazy over Spotify.

It’s a beautiful, polished, iTunes-like program that offers access to 15 million songs — according to Spotify, a bigger catalog than Napster’s, Rhapsody’s, MOG’s or Rdio’s (but there’s a footnote — see below).

All the big record companies have signed on to this crazy experiment: Sony, Warner, Universal and EMI. (The usual “we’re afraid of the Internet” bands are missing, like the Beatles, Metallica and Led Zeppelin.)

The sound quality is excellent. (It’s 160-kbps Ogg Vorbis format, if that means anything to you.) The music starts playing almost instantly. With a click, you can share your playlists with friends on Twitter or Facebook, or see what they listen to most. A whole system of Web sites has cropped up where people can share, rate and recommend music and playlists.

And there’s one more big attraction. Let’s see ... what was it? Oh, yes — it’s free.

It’s true. For the first time in Internet history, you can now listen to any track, any album, right now, legally, no charge.

No wonder it took a while to persuade the record companies.

Now, there are some restrictions. The big one is the ads: for two minutes of each hour you hear ads spliced in between your songs (usually for Spotify’s premium plans, described in a moment).

And you see banner ads in the Spotify software. If you sign up now, you can listen to all the music you want this way for the next six months — but after that, you’ll be limited to 10 hours of free music a month.

The final footnote on the fantasy of free music is this: you need an invitation to join.

That, obviously, is a speed bump intended to prevent Spotify’s computers from blowing up when 300 million hyperventilating Americans arrive simultaneously.

You can request an invitation at Spotify.com, or you can get one from someone who has one of the paid plans.

Various corporate sponsors will be giving away invitations to the free service, too (Coke, Motorola and Reebok, for example).

Even so, for millions of people, that’s still a better deal than anyone has offered before. Like some new song on the radio?

Go home and listen to the whole album, or that band’s entire catalog. Tired of your hipster Facebook buddy talking about the latest buzz band and leaving you clueless?

Fire up Spotify and listen to his playlists. Considering seeing a musical? Listen to the cast album first.

For penny pinchers, this free and easy way to call up any song, instantly, is a giddy new entertainment option.

Better yet, the Spotify software on your Mac or PC automatically recognizes and displays your existing music collection stored in iTunes or Windows Media Player — even your playlists.

You can manage your own songs, and incorporate them into playlists, right alongside the millions offered by Spotify. It’s not as full-featured (or as cluttered) as iTunes, but the essentials are here: you can search, sort, organize and get recommendations for music.

Now, in Europe, 84 percent of Spotify’s 10 million listeners do it the free way, tolerating those occasional ads. But it’s easy to imagine that there are some people who say, “Jeez — I’d happily pay, say, $5 a month to get rid of those ads, that 10-hour limit and the invitation waiting list!”

That’s why Spotify offers the $5-a-month, no-ads, no-limits, no-invite plan (called Unlimited).

And surely there’s another group of hard-core music lovers who say, “That’s great, but I’d pay even more if I could listen on my phone. Preferably even when it’s offline, like on a plane or the subway.”

That’s why Spotify offers the $10-a-month, no-ads, no-limits, no-invite, sync-to-your-phone, download-too plan (called Premium).

Sure enough, with the Premium plan, you can download music to up to three computers or phones, ready to play back even when you don’t have an Internet connection — up to 3,333 at a time. (Yes, 3,333. The music companies work in strange and mysterious ways.)

Also with Premium, some of the tracks are available in an even higher-quality format (320 Kbps).

The mobile app (for iPhone, Android, Windows 7, Symbian or Palm) can play Spotify right on your phone — in the car, at work, while you’re running, anything.

The music flows in over either a 3G cellular connection or a Wi-Fi connection. (Use Wi-Fi if you have it; Spotify will eat up your monthly cellular data allotment in no time.)

If Spotify had a suggestion box, it wouldn’t be completely empty. It’s great that Premium members can send music to the phone for listening offline (even wirelessly, over Wi-Fi), but you can do that only by playlist, not by song or album.

There’s a good assortment of classical music, but, as usual with online music services, it’s not always easy to search, and there’s no option for “gapless playback” between movements.

Only Spotify offers a free plan. But once you’re paying $5 or $10 a month, rivals like Napster, MOG or Rdio offer packages with very similar, and sometimes superior, features. And most let you listen right there on the Web, on any computer; Spotify requires that you first install its free player program.

Furthermore, Spotify maintains that its song catalog is bigger than any of its rivals’ — but Napster asserts that Spotify’s “15 million tracks” is its global total, and only a subset is available in each country.

In the United States, Napster says that its catalog is actually bigger. (Spotify got weirdly noncommunicative when I tried to pin it down on this point.)

Now, all subscription services have certain advantages.

You never have to fool around with 30-second previews of songs, or pay extra for the most popular songs, or fill up your phone’s memory with huge song files. And because there’s no per-song price, you enjoy a freedom of exploration that’s much harder to achieve when you buy songs one at a time.

The traditional downside of subscription services, though, is that you’re only renting music, not buying it. When you stop paying your monthly fee, you’re left with nothing.

The real Spotify breakthrough, therefore, is that it makes that gotcha disappear. You get all the advantages of a subscription service, but you won’t feel like a sucker when you quit the service (or when the terms change, as they have before).

After all, you won’t have paid a penny for all those months or years of musical enjoyment.

Almost everybody hopes that Spotify will succeed. If Spotify, and the record companies, and the musicians, can make money the Spotify way, more power to them.

Who knows? It might turn out that the record companies aren’t such big, greedy dunderheads after all.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.