“Premium members deserve premium sound quality.” Spotify.com
“I guess premium members also deserve to be ignored…” A customer on GetSatisfaction
Spotify introduced 320 kbps streaming back in June 2009. Since then, no official statement on the conversion progress has been made. The closest I can find is on their support forum, GetSatisfaction, a Spotify employee Andres said about 60% of their music were available in 320 kbps. That was from one year ago.
So, as a premium user, what would you expect now? 80%, 90% or all Spotify music is available in 320 kbps streaming?
I did a simple test: After restarting my Macbook, I used a freeware, Magican Paster Lite to monitor the internet traffic. I saved the tracks one by one to an offline playlist, and the downloaded data shows the file size of the tracks.
I tested five tracks each from Spotify’s new singles/albums, and currently most popular singles/albums, taken from the official playlists and Top Lists in Spotify's desktop client. The results are very disappointing. The majority (13 out of 20 tracks) of the newest and most popular stuff are only available in 160 kbps, even the latest high profile release, Beyoncé’s 4, which was a Spotify Premium exclusive pre-release, is not in HQ.
I raised this question through Quora, GetSatisfaction and Spotify’s contact forum, and got two emails from custom service:
“We aim to have all the world’s music available at Spotify in HQ. We are still in the process of acquiring licenses to all music in the world (!), therefore it is possible that you won’t be able to find some of your favorite artists or tracks in HQ right now. We are signing new labels and adding a great amount of new tracks every week. Hopefully your favorite music will be up and running in 320 kbps soon.”
After I asked him why they needed a different license for HQ streaming, he then replied:
"I am sorry I was unclear, the quality issue has not that much to do with actual licenses, but rather which copies the labels hand us with. The goal for us is to obtain ALL music in HQ, but at the moment not every record is available in multiple qualities."
I find this answer rather vague. A friend in the licensing business, who has licensed their contents to Spotify, told me that: all streaming services, including Spotify, get music from content providers in lossless format. He said what he did with Spotify is uploading their contents in Flac to a FTP, with a xml file for metadata. I believe that’s the way Spotify got most, if not all their content. Otherwise, they will have to ask the content providers for 96 kbps (for mobile low-quality streaming), 160 kbps, and 320 kbps ogg files, and 320 kbps MP3 files for Spotify’s download service. Besides, Spotify’s ogg files are encrypted, how can the content providers do that?
I did another test on July 6th. I used http://www.randomsong.se/, and Spotibot each to generate 40 random tracks. The first one seems to be randomly selected from a rather mainstream catalog, and the Spotibot one looks really random. I then switched to my other PC, with Spotify freshly installed (to make sure no cache interferes the test), and saved the tracks one by one into a offline playlist. I used a freeware Net Meter to monitor the size of downloaded data.
Since the file size difference between 160 and 320 kbps ogg files are obvious, a 4 minutes song in 160 kbps is about 5 MB and and normally more than 10 MB in 320 kbps, I believe my results are accurate.
See the statistical results of my investigations in this spreadsheet on Google Docs:
Only 35 of the 115 tested tracks are in high quality.
It is worth noting that, more than 100 of the 115 tracks are already available for purchase as 320 kbps MP3s on Spotify. I don’t know how much time Spotify spent on launching the MP3 store, but it seems obtaining their catalog in 320 kbps is not something they cannot get done in two years. I can give you a rough estimate: an ordinary dual-core computer can convert an 10-track, 40-minute album from Flac to q9 ogg (320 kbps) in two minutes (at most). That is 12 seconds for one track.
So it only takes 3 home computers to convert Spotify’s whole 15-million tracks catalog into 320 kbps ogg files in two years time. Or, I guess, one 8-core workstation will suffice?
So why Spotify hasn’t done this yet? Honestly I have no idea. The only explanation I can imagine is to save bandwidth, but that seems to be too trivial a reason for not delivering goods to paid customers who took it for granted since 2009. Remember we are talking about a company who aims at getting 50 millions US users in first year. Since last week I asked many Spotify directors on Twitter, but no direct answer. CEO Daniel Ek said, to my big surprise, “Don’t know the answer but I’ll look it up for you!” Nothing came up so far, except for those two email quoted above. To me their reactions to this issue are like this:
I hope Spotify pay enough attention to this problem, it’s not a feature request, but giving Premium users what they are paying for. In another word, It might not be an exaggeration to say that Spotify is in danger of being accused of false advertising here.
I believe the majority of Spotify premium users are under the impression that most of Spotify’s catalog is already available in 320 kbps. Because after they announced the news of high bit rate in June 2009, most media press and online sources just refer to the Premium sound quality as 320 kbps, without noting that not all tracks are currently available in HQ.
A few examples:
“Initially, not all tracks will be available at the higher bit rate. We’ve begun converting the most popular tracks first and over the next few of weeks and months we’ll be adding more and more high quality tracks until the entire catalogue is available in hi-fi.”
“…or optional q9 (approx ~320kbit/s) for Premium subscribers, the highest streaming rate for any online service.”
“Initially the most popular tracks will be available at the higher bit rate, with the entire catalogue converted to 320 kb/s over the next few weeks.”
and this quote from an interview:
“Currently we offer the option of listening at 320kbps on Spotify Premium and we use the Ogg Vorbis codec, which is considered to be very good amongst audiophiles,” defended Söderström.
Yes on their official site: Spotify do declare that “not all tracks are currently available in high bitrate”. But from a consequentialist’s point of view, it still looks like de facto false advertising. How many Premium users would expect that after two years, even the majority of new and Premium exclusive contents are only in 160 kbps?
If you are a premium user and also angry about this, please do something to persuade Spotify to speed up the long overdue conversion to 320 kbps streaming. Please ask questions on GetSatisfaction, Twitter, Facebook, Quora or contact their customer services, let’s hope our effort would make Spotify more transparent to users. Thanks.
Lastly, dear Spotify, I want to emphasize that: you are perfectly OK not giving users essential features like gapless playback or iPad app, at most you lose some customers, anyway you cannot please them all with scarce resources. But this is different: it could get into a lawsuit and you might even have to refund premium users if the case went wild. I really don’t want to see that happens, I still think that you are the best music service (though you lost the crown of the highest streaming rate to MOG for now) and hope you become even more awesome. Yours.
A loyal Spotify user and supporter
Update (11/07/2011): After my constant inquires, Spotify costumer services sent me an new email this morning, it reads:
“Thank you for your message and your interest in clearing things out! You and the community posts you referred to, are correct in most cases. But I will however tell you a couple of things I just learned that will work as kind of an official response in the matter.
As you stated, all music we get is in lossless format. All music is intended to be converted to all three qualities. We get thousands of songs each day, and the converting process is always chewing new data. Surely we might need to upgrade and enhance our methods and equipment to make this go faster, but for the time being, I can tell you we're doing all we can to provide the users with 320 k ogg vorbis on every song!
Hope this answer was sufficient enough for you!”
It only confirms my speculation about how they get music from content provides, but the lacking of time and equipment is far from a satisfying, or even reasonable answer (see my calculation above). What Spotify promised in June 2009 is they would convert the whole catalog “over the next few of weeks and months”, now more than 100 weeks have past. Something else went wrong, but it is definitely not that Spotify (with $100m new funding) could not find enough computers to do this job, which by all means should be a high priority.
Update 2(12/07/2011): After I replied with my estimation that a couple of home computers can finish the job in two years, CS sent me another reply:
“Thank you for the further investigation. I am not however obligated to tell you exactly what our equipment is doing all the time, but I will forward this issue to the dev and content-departments to see what they have to say. I cannot promise you an answer or any further explanation but if I do learn such a thing, I will contact you again! “
Do you see the pattern here in all four replies? Whether deliberately or not, he always gave me a false answer, until I proved it wrong. I guess he also sent the previous answers to other people who asked the same question, but I might be one of the few who got this far. I will keep on digging, and please help to spread the news until Spotify cannot ignore this crucial problem anymore. Thanks.
Update 3 (18/07/2011): I wrote this article about ten days ago, and had to postpone the publication due to various reasons, one of them being Spotify told me, through a 3rd party, that an official reply to my query on GetSatisfation would be made shortly. Nothing happened except for the customer service John, whose emails I quoted above, repeated his answer that "we are doing all we can".
You see, this is why I am angry about this. I am perfectly happy to pay a tenner for Premium even without 320 kbps streaming, but the "ambiguity, dearth of information, and poor responsiveness" (to quote another customer) is what I don't want to see from a company that I greatly admire.
The U.S. market is a swim-or-sink place, and this problem is already hurting Spotify from the beginning. Techcrunch wrote in their comparison of Spotify and Rido:
"Spotify Bitrate Quality: 160 kbps with some tracks at 320 kbps for premium users."
That's about a more accurate description of the fact. Even if more than half of Spotify's catalog is in 320 kbps, it still doesn't mean a thing if you don't tell the users the exact proportion, and don't even let them see the bitrate of currently playing track. In my opinion Spotify's way of handling this problem so far devalued themselves and that makes me sad. I still believe they are the best thing ever happened to music since p2p file sharing, and I sincerely hope they will fix the problem in time, with dignity.
Note: Complete correspondences with CS can be found on this Google Doc. All 115 tested tracks are in this playlist: 320K Test.
Important Update (16/08/2011): Spotify converted a great number of recordings to 320 kbps in the past few weeks. See new comments here and in GetSatisfaction for more details.
Important Update (23/09/2011): Spotify's Official Statement: "All music streamed through Spotify is of high quality (no less than 96 kbps for mobile and 160 kbps for desktop). We have a catalog of more than 15 million tracks and more than 99.9% are available in high bitrate (320 kbps) for our Premium users. Our catalog adds an average of 10,000 new tracks daily and we add the newly added tracks as quickly as possible."