Why Spotify Sucks for Classical Music

Spotify, just released as an invitation-only service in the US, has been around in Europe for a while. I wrote about it for Macworld back in 2009, and here on Kirkville in November 2010 (and just updated the latter).

I’d been thinking about subscribing to Spotify earlier this week, before they announced US availability, and I took the leap today and spent my first €5 to try it out for a month. I’d tried the free ad-infested version before, and I’ve had some gripes, as I wrote about before. But, even without ads, I realized that Spotify sucks for classical music.

One may claim that the Spotify model is not designed for classical music. Nevertheless, there is a lot of classical music available. So you’d think that the Spotify people might consider this group of listeners, and try and offer a service that they would like. Here are the main reasons why Spotify sucks for classical music (some of which apply to Spotify in general).

  1. No gapless playback. I hadn’t noticed this in my tests, in part because I chose to listen to works that didn’t require it, and in part because of the overly loud ads that came in every few minutes. While there are many classical works that you can listen to with gaps, you simply cannot listen to a large number of works – such as most operas, or anything that is composed with movements that have no breaks – without gapless playback.
  2. Search sucks. I’ve written about Spotify’s sucky search before. Andres Sehr of Spotify replied in the comments to that article, saying that:

    Rather then automate discovery we’ve worked hard on making music more social, ensuring that you can see and share all your playlists with friends (via our Facebook connection in particular) and discover new music socially through twitter, blogs, etc.

    Well, this really doesn’t work that well for classical music.

    Here’s an example of why search really sucks. In the screen shot below, you can see that I searched for Alfred Brendel. There’s an elipsis (…) at the end showing that there’s more. Yet the only way to see more is to click on the artist’s name.

    This works for a single artist, but if you want to search for something broader, say, “Schubert lieder,” you’ll have to look at the list that displays below. And that list is designed for searching for songs, not albums or works. Naturally, there are several albums entitled Schubert: Lieder, and they’re all mixed together, not even separated by artist. There’s not even an album view for searches, such as you see on the iTunes Store.

    Wait, there’s more. The search results list only shows you some of the results. You can scroll down, and some more will be added, but there seems to be a limit of a few hundred tracks. Search for “label:haenssler bach.” I happen to know that Haenssler’s complete Bach set is available on Spotify. But the results from the search suck. First, you don’t get much. Next, if you want to add more results, you scroll down, and only get 5 more tracks each time you scroll. Then, if you want to sort by, say, album, you won’t get any more results at all. (Searches sort by popularity, so you can’t easily see tracks on the same album grouped together. If you want to search by artist or album, clicking a column header stops the search, so you only see what’s been loaded before you clicked.)

    How hard can it be to make an advanced search window where users can search for different tags? How hard to make an interface which displays albums, if a user so desires? It seems that Spotify just isn’t interested in a clientele that wants to search for more than the latest hit.

    It’s worth noting that one Spotify user has created a search tool on their website that returns albums, and the Spotify Classical Playlists website published extensive playlists of large collections of classical music. Users can click on them and load them directly in the Spotify client.

  3. No list of new releases. Many classical music fans would like to see what’s new. I know I would.

    To be fair, looking through the latest issue of the British classical music magazine Gramophone, at its “Editor’s Choice” list, I did find about half the albums listed, but in most cases had to search for the composer and artist, rather than the album name, in order to find them. Nevertheless, this means that half of those albums are not available (or simply don’t come up in a search). And it seems that the major labels are better represented than the indies. I’m pretty sure that when I first tried out Spotify back in 2009 there were many discs from labels such as Bis and Harmonia Mundi. Now, there are only a handful from Bis, and just one from Harmonia Mundi. Hyperion Records is notably absent from Spotify as well.

  4. No liner notes. No information at all about the music. Nothing other than “song,” artist, album and time.
  5. View settings aren’t persistent. If I display or play an album, and I increase the width of the columns to better be able to read the name of the track, album or artist, then click on something else, when I come back, the column widths are not saved. Unfortunately, many classical works have long names, or have lists of artists that are more than about 20 characters.
  6. The interface itself sucks. As I wrote in my earlier post, it’s white text on a gray background, and as pixels on monitors get smaller, the font gets harder to read. I understand that Spotify is targeting a younger demographic, but those with poor eyesight will find it annoying to read on this ugly interface. Here’s what it looks like:

  7. No Composer column. You can see Artist, Album, Track and Time, but not composer. Since only some labels include the composer’s name in the Album or Track tag, if you’re looking at a playlist that someone else has created, you may simply not know who the music is by.

So there are many reasons why Spotify sucks for classical music. But the two deal-breakers are non-gapless playback and really, truly, honestly bad searching. I simply don’t buy the argument that it’s designed so you can discover new music via social networks. I want to be able to find what’s there, among their 15 million or so tracks. If Spotify, by not providing a good search tool, is saying that they don’t want my money, well, perhaps they won’t get it for long.

On the other hand, they’ve got a heck of a lot of Grateful Dead, including all 36 live Dick’s Picks recordings. A lot depends on your definition of the word “classical.”