LOS ANGELES — Sweden’s Spotify digital music service
arrived in the U.S. with its catalog of 15 million songs and an
operation that is primed to shake up the world’s largest and most
lucrative music market.
With 10 million registered users in Europe, Spotify
offers limited hours of music for free or streams unlimited songs for a
small fee to computers and mobile phones. That model has analysts
wondering if its U.S. debut Thursday spells the beginning of the end for
the 99-cent download market dominated by Apple Inc.’s iTunes store.
“The download business is basically over,” said Aram Sinnreich, an assistant media professor at Rutgers University.
The digital music market appeared to be stagnating
last year with sales volume growing just 1 percent from the previous
year, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
But sales of digital tracks regained momentum in the
first six months this year, increasing 11 percent from the same period a
year earlier. That gave the industry hope that the $2.2 billion U.S.
market for music downloads has not lost steam, as some had feared.
And most industry executives, including those at
Spotify, insist that music downloads will continue to make up a big
portion of the overall $6.9 billion U.S. music business for years to
But other experts predict that consumer momentum will
favor subscription services such as Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, MOG,
Slacker and others once users discover that it can be cheaper to rent
music than to buy it.
Spotify’s U.S. offerings will be largely similar to
what it has in Europe, namely a free service supported by advertising
and two premium tiers that let users listen without ads on computers and
on mobile devices.
The free tier will let new users listen to the
company’s catalog from a computer connection for six months. After that,
users will be capped at 10 hours a month and up to five spins for any
Subscribers who pay $4.99 a month can access the
service without ads or limitations from a computer connection. A $9.99
tier also lets users listen to the service from a smartphone, such as an
iPhone or Android, Palm or Windows 7 device.
For those who aren’t able to score an invitation to
the free service, they can let their wallet do the talking. Customers
willing to pay for the premium tiers don’t need an invitation.
Among the 10 million registered users in Europe, 1.6 million spring for a premium service.
Such monthly subscription services have been around
for a decade. But consumers have been reluctant to try them because the
technology seemed daunting or the idea seemed too strange.
That’s starting to change as consumers become
accustomed to having access to all manner of digital entertainment on
Spotify, with its generous free option, is expected
to accelerate that trend, said Ted Cohen, a digital music analyst with
TAG Strategic, a consulting firm in Hollywood. He expects users will
discover that Spotify offers the same advantages that watching movies on
Netflix’s online streaming provides over buying DVDs at Best Buy.
“There’s a real halo effect around Spotify. The
anticipation has been so great that people are going to want to check it
out,” Cohen said. “And when they do, they will finally understand …
that streaming for music works just as well. In a totally connected
world, 99 cents a song is a bad value.”
Still, Spotify executives are among those who
disagree with predictions of a demise of the download business, in which
Apple currently has a greater than 60 percent share, according to NPD
Group, a market research firm.
“In markets where Spotify operates in Europe, digital
downloads actually grew,” said Ken Parks, Spotify’s chief content
officer. “People are finding that Spotify is a great way to discover new
music that they can purchase.”
Russ Crupnick, a music analyst with NPD Group, agreed.
“I’m not ready to anoint Spotify as the latest in a
long series of supposed iTunes killers,” Crupnick said. “For heavy
consumers of music, you could argue that services like Spotify leads
them to buy even more music.”
For now, Spotify, whose free service is open only to
those who receive an invitation from the company or its partners,
appears to be off to a good start.
Klout, a social network ranking site that was giving
out invitations, nearly crashed Thursday after being flooded with
requests. Klout stopped issuing invites, saying it would resume Friday.
“The reception has been overwhelmingly positive,”
said Parks, who declined to divulge the number of people who have signed
up for Spotify. “But it’s just early hours.”
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