How Spotify Works: Pay The Majors, Use P2P Technology : The Record Spotify is fast, convenient and legal, but can it turn a profit?

How Spotify Works: Pay The Majors, Use P2P Technology

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.


And I'm Robert Siegel. If you've ever tried to listen to music on a website, you've probably had the experience of waiting and waiting for a song to start. Well, the music service, Spotify, thinks it's found a way to get music to your computer faster.

As NPR's Joel Rose reports, Spotify employs some of the same technology the music industry has been fighting for years.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: To give you a sense of how Spotify works, let's pick a song that I don't have on my computer. Say, "Roadrunner" by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Search, click and...


ROSE: There's no wait for buffering or downloading. Spotify feels, in a word, instant.

JOHN PAVLEY: We're set up so that we can deliver the music with a meantime average of 285 milliseconds, which is like super fast.

ROSE: John Pavley is Spotify's VP of engineering. That number he mentioned, 285 milliseconds, may sound arbitrary, but Charlie Hellman, director of product development for Spotify, says it's not.

CHARLIE HELLMAN: The human perception of instant, it's something like 250 milliseconds. By bringing the time to play on our service down to about 285 milliseconds, the perception is that you already have the file on your computer, that it's instant.

ROSE: Spotify launched in Europe three years ago and in the U.S. this past August. The basic idea behind the company isn't brand new. Music streaming services where you pay a monthly fee for access to zillions of songs have been around for a decade. They've never broken through to a mass market, but Eliot Van Buskirk, who writes about music technology for Wired and, says Spotify might.

ELIOT VAN BUSKIRK: To an extent, Spotify is basically like other services we've had, but the difference is that it has, I think, reduced the friction for people trying this stuff out and that was one of the first things that I noticed, is that it's just impossibly fast.

ROSE: Spotify hopes to use that speed to lure consumers to the free advertising-supported version of its service, then convince them to pay a monthly fee to use Spotify on their phones and mobile devices. Its target audience is the millions of people who continue to download music for free from peer-to-peer networks.

Ken Parks is the head of Spotify's New York office.

KEN PARKS: The problem with the environment when Spotify launched service over three years ago is that the illegal alternatives were better, simply better than the legal ones.

ROSE: So, Spotify borrows a few tricks from the peer-to-peer networks it's trying to put out of business. Instead of only downloading a single song file from its own server, Spotify searches for copies of the song wherever it can find them, including the computers of other Spotify users.


ROSE: John Pavley says it takes bits of a song from multiple sources simultaneously.


ROSE: And then puts them back together on your computer a lot faster than it could by downloading that single file.


PAVLEY: Behind the scenes, while the music is playing, we're grabbing it from wherever we can. You can't interact with the P2P network. It's just a little facility that we use to move things along very quickly.

ROSE: Before he came to Spotify, Pavley was actually VP of engineering for Limewire, a popular peer-to-peer network. Unlike the P2Ps it's trying replace, Spotify actually has licensing deals with the major record labels and the company announced a deal with Facebook.

Eliot Van Buskirk says that allows Facebook users to automatically share the songs they're listening to via Spotify.

BUSKIRK: It gets closer and closer to that original Napster feeling of, you know, what do my friends have? Can I have that? And now, it's like, well, yes, you can. And there's this whole mechanism for finding out what they have that you're already using anyway, to share pictures of your cat or whatever it is.

ROSE: But Van Buskirk says Spotify's deals with the major record labels didn't come cheap. Spotify says it has more than two million paying users worldwide, although the company declined to discuss how many of them are in the U.S. Van Buskirk and others think Spotify will have to sign up a lot more if it's going to make a profit.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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