May 4, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Surprise! Cloud Music Service Spotify Embraces the Download

spotify on the ipod, plus downloadable mp3s

This artist's rendering, courtesy of Spotify, shows how the new iPod-syncing feature works.

Spotify, which most Americans still can’t use, broke one million paying subscribers in Europe last month on the strength of its cloud-based music service, which lets free subscribers stream music effortlessly to any computer, and paid subscribers to mobile devices as well.

As perhaps another sign that the company is preparing (still) a U.S. version of its music service Spotify’s latest move is to embrace the decidedly old-school style music store model pioneered by Apple iTunes: selling downloadable music at piecemeal prices and allowing them to be transferred to iPods.

Spotify already supported loads of “smart” devices through custom apps for iPhone, Android, Windows, Symbian, and Palm — this new syncing feature mainly concerns old-school iPods: the iPod Classic, iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle. Connect one of those to your Mac or Windows PC, and Spotify will show it in the Devices pane.

You can’t just sync any old song, playlist or album from Spotify – only those which are already stored locally as MP3s. So for all of the playlists you or your Spotify friends may have created, you’ll need to either: A) Download the whole playlist as a big purchase in the new Spotify download store, or B) Obtain them in some other way (CD, sneakernet, file sharing, etc.) and import them into Spotify as local MP3s.

Any accusations of encouraging piracy through this latter opton should be thwarted by the fact that iTunes works in precisely the same way. Besides, power users will be more likely to pay for a subscription and use a supported smartphone or other Spotify device (such as a television connected to a nice sound system) so they can access all their playlists without buying anything, anyway.

However, owners of iPhones, iPod Touches, and other supported “smart” devices are also covered by this announcement, to a limited extent. Non-paying Spotify users (who are subject to new limits) can now install an app that lets their devices play these MP3s, the same way traditional iPods now can. However, as before, you’ll need to pay if you want to access the cloud-based Spotify streaming service on any portable or consumer electronics device.

This is a surprising move by Spotify in one sense, because it represents a big literal and figurative step away from the cloud, and back onto the desktop. However, if the service is to be all things to all people, it needs a download store as well as support for the hundreds of millions of iPods already in consumers’ pockets.

“From today, Spotify really is the only music player you’ll ever need,” said Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek in a prepared statement. “Our users don’t want to have to switch between music players, but they do want to take their playlists with them wherever they go, on a wider range of devices, more simply and at a price they can afford.”

Those things are true, but there’s a major subtext here, to those who can read it. This move back towards the desktop is likely to curry favor with record labels such as Warner Music Group which prefer downloads to Spotify’s free, ad-supported streams, in advance of Spotify’s perennially-anticipated U.S. launch.

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