Saturday, July 23, 2011

Early thoughts on Spotify

A couple days ago, I started trying out Spotify Pro. In general, I like it a lot, but there are a couple annoyances I just can't get past.

The selection is pretty good, from my perspective as somebody who listens to mostly classical music. And the social and sharing features are great. For the most part everything works nicely, though I have run into specific tracks that just won't play on the mobile version that are fine on the desktop. For example, "Dance 10, Looks 3" from the latest cast album of A Chorus Line. (That link's a great example of the sharing and social features that Spotify does a really great job with.)

But, on to the bad. I am seeing the message "Artist/Label has made this track unavailable" way too much. It's really obnoxious. And there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for it. Let's look at an example. Clarinet-playing readers may have played the Staccato Studies written by Reginald Kell. You may not be aware, however, that Deutsche Grammophon has released a box set of his recordings. Let's check out this set on Spotify: 

As you can see, we miss out on the entire Mozart clarinet concerto, half of the quintet, and the first movement of the K.388 serenade. But it's understandable. Deutsche Grammophon can't allow people to listen to the 3rd and 4th movements of the clarinet quintet, even though the first two are OK, because... ummm... Well, OK, let's take another look. Did you know Hilary Hahn recorded the Jennifer Higdon violin concerto? I didn't! (Name drop: I was briefly in grad school at the same time as Higdon.)

Once again... missing tracks. Why? Well, it turns out there is a reason--a really stupid one. A Spotify employee posted that UMG labels (including, hello, Deutsche Grammophon) seem to have blocked tracks that are longer than 7 or 10 minutes long. (It seems to be 7 here, if you look at the tracks in the above examples.) I'll say it again. This is stupid. At risk of belaboring the point, I'll share one more example of exactly how stupid it is. Let's check out a Decca (also UMG) recording of highlights from Verdi's La Traviata with Joan Sutherland and Richard Merrill. 

Note that we're missing out on one of the most famous Verdi arias,"E strano! / Ah, fors'è lui," which checks in at a slothful 7:03. Not to worry, though! Fortunately, Dame Joan moved it along when she recorded the same aria along with Luciano Pavorotti. She brought it in at 6:54, so we are able to hear it (though other tracks did not make the cut).

This seems to be the labels' fault (or label's? It's not clear that other folks besides UMG are doing this), but I've run into it often enough just looking for stuff I like that it's making me less happy with Spotify.

The other thing that's really annoying me is the track titling. Again, this is something that seems to be worse for classical recordings than for others. To be fair, this is (once again) the labels' fault. And anybody who's spent any amount of time dealing with classical music in digital form knows that tagging is a complete disaster. The issue is simple: Put the name of the album in the Album tag. Put the track title in the Track field. Instead, we get stuff like this Wolfgang Sawallisch recording of Elijah:

I suppose it's nice to know that you're in Part 1, but do we really need to know that we're in "Mendelssohn, Elijah, op. 70," in every single track?? I submit that we do not. And of course, "Sung in German!" Priceless.  And the same kind of thing in this Flying Dutchman. Though now we learn that it's digitally remastered from 2000, with every track.

The most unintentionally hilarious example, though, was this recording of Tannhäuser

It's so nice of them to let us know what act and scene we're in. (Except for the first act.. let's not worry too much about consistency.) No matter what language we use!

At this point, I'm no doubt once again guilty of beating a dead horse. And this is a very arcane complaint, right? I'm being compulsive about my insistence on having tags exactly the way I want them. Does this really detract from my enjoyment of the music? That's a fair point. I should just relax. In fact, I think I'll get my phone and listen to the Elijah I posted above.

Ah. Yes, well, good luck picking out any individual track. Or seeing which track is playing.

All things considered? I'm probably going to cancel when my month of "premium" subscription is over. It's picky, I know, but overall, I'm just not happy enough to shell out.

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