With Teeth: Spotify Player, WordPress and the need for open source in music

Upon reading Spotify’s news of their embeddable player yesterday I must admit that I was initially really excited by the concept. After all, Spotify has aspirations to become “the OS of music” and on paper at least this move seems like a wise one. To some extent, it is.

Digging a little deeper though, I found my view changing. For one thing, the player itself isn’t particularly impressive – rather than exist as an entirely web-driven experience it instead is forced to launch your Spotify player. Immediately that introduces a number of obstacles to adoption. Firstly, you need to be in a country where Spotify has launched. Secondly, you need to have Spotify installed and an active user account in order to stream. Compare this to, for example, YouTube or Soundcloud and immediately the issue becomes clear: as long as this embeddable player cannot be openly used by all, anywhere on the web, it falls down.

If I was running a site with significant international reach, would I be better serving my userbase via an openly accessible embedded player, or would I rather run the risk of annoying certain sections of my visitors who won’t respond well to getting the much-hated “sorry, this isn’t available in your country” message – one that us Brits are so used to seeing when American blogs post a Hulu player?

Really though these are hurdles which Spotify doubtless plans to rectify in time. Their plans are global and in due course they’ll seek to become ubiquitous in that sense. Consider too that these players only require a free account, and these days all you need to do to get one is connect via Facebook. In that sense then, access isn’t a massive issue here: yes, you need Spotify but really, getting it isn’t so hard – especially if you’re a fan of an excellent music site which filters the best music out there for you to enjoy. Also I would imagine the clock is ticking on a “headless” version of Spotify launching that takes a leaf out of Rdio and provides means to stream audio without first launching the desktop client.

Let’s also not forget that – unlike Soundcloud for example – these plays are monetised. The industry as a whole will definitely be placing that high on their agenda in choosing which player to use. That said, this business of ours has a tendency to forget something quite fundamental, namely that the consumer couldn’t give a damn whether the content is monetised or not. All they want is convenient access.

Above and beyond all these points though, a far larger issue troubles me about Spotify’s player. In iTunes, the industry helped build a dominant force; an incredible service, no question, but also a monopoly which some may argue holds too much power over labels – especially independent ones which lack the muscle of a major.

As Spotify grows, so it starts to look similarly dominant in the world of on-demand streaming services. This embeddable player is a major development in that step, as it represents the company’s move beyond its own client into websites, in the same manner as Facebook’s “Like” button did for Zuckerberg and co. If this were to become the dominant means to share music on sites, the effect could be catastrophic for other services, but most importantly for users too because in time “music” and “Spotify” would become synonymous; if you’re not on the latter, you could effectively be out of the picture.

Now, I’ll admit this is all a little fire-and-brimstone and doubtless a good number of you are thinking “he’s being very negative about a very positive step”. You may have a point. But let’s take a step back to consider two scenarios here.

Above is a Spotify player. Click it, and Spotify will launch on your computer and will start playing the track. Assuming you have Spotify, that is. And assuming you’re not in a country where Spotify isn’t live yet – in which case I’m guessing you’ll be told you cannot hear the track.

Now consider this player:

Hit “play” and the track starts playing immediately. But that’s not all. The above player – coded in less than 2hrs by developer Syd Lawrence – utilises the Tomahawk platform to find any version of the track available to you, the listener. It is an alpha version at present, but ultimately this could be capable of sourcing the track being linked to from any service available to you personally. Not a Spotify user? No problem – the track is also on Soundcloud so it will serve it from there.

To me, this kind of top-level resolver is the future of music sharing on the web. It isn’t bound to any one service, and places the user’s experience first and foremost by ensuring that where possible any barriers to access are removed. This is the kind of open web I hoped we would one day see – not one locked to monopolies.

In many ways, the Tomahawk platform reminds me of WordPress. The latter has become the world’s largest blogging platform – at least in the sense of own-server installations if not across the board. It has done this through its open source status, leveraging developers worldwide to refine the product to one of maximum convenience and flexibility to its users. Tomahawk is the same; by remaining not-for-profit and open source, the project does not have an agenda here beyond providing the best possible music experience for you, the user. If I have one criticism or regret where Tomahawk is concerned, it is only that is hasn’t got the financial backing to make a big play into the music world. If it could, I do believe it could become the de facto player of choice for the serious music fan.

So what’s my point here? Only this: I love Spotify. I’m a Premium user and I love the convenience of access it provides. However right now I love it as part of a mix of music consumption which also takes in physical formats and other online services such as Soundcloud, Mixcloud, ExFM, LastFM, Rdio and more. The moment one service rises above to dominate, we lose that colourful cross-section of access that makes the world of music online more interesting. That is not good for anyone, be that the artist, the label, or the consumer. The Spotify player represents a step in that direction, and whilst that has some benefits, it comes with inevitable pitfalls too that consumers would do well to be mindful of.

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