Spotify is changing how people experience their favourite music online. But is it useful for classical music fans?

What exactly is Spotify?

Spotify is a digital music-streaming service that offers its users access to a vast library of recordings across a range of major and independent record labels. It was developed in 2008 by two Swedes, Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, with the aim of providing a convenient and legal alternative to music piracy. After signing up and downloading a desktop client, Spotify is relatively quick and easy to master. It now has 24 million users in 15 countries.

So what’s the big deal?

Although online music streaming isn’t exactly a new concept, what makes Spotify stand out is the size of its music library – more than 17 million tracks. Users are able to listen to specific and individual tracks, a feature not offered by competing music-streaming services such as Pandora & An “artist radio” function that recommends music based on specific composers and performers also makes it easy to discover new music.

Can I listen for free?

Yes, and then no. For the first six months users are offered unlimited streaming but are subjected to audio advertisements between tracks. After this period a ten-hour per week listening limit applies. If you’re willing to part with some cash, you can listen to the entire library for $6.99 per month without ads. The Spotify Premium service for $11.99 per month offers the same benefits but with better audio quality and access on portable devices such as smartphones.

So what can I expect to hear?

The Spotify catalogue, while it focuses on pop, does provide an impressive range of classical music. A quick search revealed over 60 complete sets of Beethoven’s symphonies and six sets of Bach cantatas. However there are considerable gaps in the classical library: significant record labels such as Hyperion and ECM are not represented, and you may not find that rare Glenn Gould live recording. Still, typing “Karajan” into the search field brought up a staggering 300-plus separate albums. In terms of audio quality, free users are able to stream music at 160kb/s – noticeably poorer performance than a CD, but for Premium users the audio quality can be upgraded to crystal-clear 320 kb/s on most tracks.

Is it easy to sort through so much music?

Users are able to search the catalogue by artist, album, record label or genre. Although these search tools are advanced enough to locate most popular music tracks, hunting down a specific classical release can be troublesome. For instance, when searching for recordings of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite some results listed Stravinsky as the artist while others listed the orchestra or conductor in this category. Unfortunately these inconsistencies in labelling prevent Spotify from being entirely user-friendly for classical music fans, who may prefer Naxos Music Library.

Does Spotify short-change the artists?

Spotify has been criticised for not compensating musicians fairly. According to British data-journalist David McCandless, an artist on Spotify would need over four million streams per month – something achieved only by major pop artists – to earn a meagre US$1,160. Indeed, last year Patrick Carney (right) of rock band The Black Keys entered into a public dispute with Spotify, arguing the music streaming company makes its money “from figuring out ways to steal royalties from artists”. Charles Caldas, CEO of the Merlin Network for Independent Artists suggests, however, that the problem is not that Spotify fails to pay out significant royalties, but that record labels pass too little of these royalties on to their artists.