- 11 Feb 09, 14:22 GMT
If you want music streamed to your computer for free there's already a big choice. As the ailing record industry thrashes around in search of a viable business model for the digital age, all sorts of deals are being done with new online services.
The latest to make a splash is called Spotify. It started in Scandinavia last year, began offering invitations to some British users a couple of months ago, and this week opened its doors to anyone in the UK who wants to come in. On the face of it, this is quite a compelling offer - millions of tracks that can be streamed to you, quickly and efficiently, for nothing. The catch is that, unless you shell out for a monthly subscription, you have to listen to an advert after every few tracks.
So, in this crowded field, who is the main opposition to Spotify? Judging by the people who've messaged me, it's last.fm. The streaming, "scrobbling" social music network (I always find it difficult to describe) has been going for six years, and a couple of years ago fell into the arms of America's broadcasting giant CBS for a tidy sum. Though it is unclear whether CBS has succeeded in turning it into a major money-spinner, last.fm continues to develop, appearing on new mobile platforms and offering new music.
So how do they compare? A few facts, figures - and comments from users of each service:
The company tells me it has 25 million users worldwide, and they have access to over 7 million tracks. For users, the emphasis is on discovering new music, rather than simply playing stuff they already know.
And its supporters are pretty passionate about it: "Far better for recommendations than Spotify," one told me. "I'm a happy last.fm user and I do not see the point in investing time to build a new playlist," said another. And while it has text adverts, users seem happy that there are no audio commercials: "I had a quick look at SPOTIFY and couldn't see why I'd use it over last.fm and that's free and ad free."
This young company is still pretty coy about figures, though it says that it has a third of a million users in Sweden, and there has been a big rush of new users in the UK since it opened to all-comers on Tuesday. It says it has licensing deals with all the big record labels and a number of independents - and a quick search seems to show that most artists are well represented. Mind you, last week it had to remove some tracks after a licensing dispute with some of the labels, a reminder that music rights remain a minefield in the digital world.
Spotify, too, has already attracted some enthusiastic fans: "Spotify is the business (last.fm unceremoniously abandoned!)", one told me." Another said: "I just prefer spotify, quality seems better."
In the end it may come down to a judgement about what kind of person looks for music online. Someone from last.fm told me he thought Spotify users were probably older and more settled in their ways, "people who already know what they like" - whereas the last.fm crowd is younger, more edgy, and more inclined to see the service as a social network.
Is there room for both services? While they both hope to make some money from steering people towards paid-for downloads, it looks as though their finances really depend on advertising. Last.fm, safe in the embrace of a giant parent, can be reasonably relaxed. But Spotify needs to attract a big crowd in a hurry - and convince increasingly picky advertisers that it's a cool place to hang out.
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