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How Spotify Works: Pay The Majors, Use P2P Technology

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If you've ever tried listening to music on a web site, you've probably had the experience of waiting ... and waiting ... for a song to start. The cloud music service Spotify thinks it's found a way around to get music to your computer faster; employing some of the same technology the music industry has been fighting against for years.

One of the first things you notice about Spotify is how quickly it starts playing the song you want to hear — even if it's not already stored on your computer. There's no wait for buffering or downloading. Spotify feels, in a word, instant.

John Pavley, Spotify's VP of engineering, says, "We're set up so that we can deliver the music with a meantime average of 285 milliseconds. Which is, like, super-fast."

That number he mentioned — 285 milliseconds — may sound arbitrary. But Charlie Hellman, director of product development for Spotify, says it's not. According to Hellman, "The human perception of instant — if you hit a button that's tangible in the world — is 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."

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 — sites where you pay a monthly fee for access to zillions of songs — have been around for a decade. But they've never broken through to a mass market.

Eliot Van Buskirk, who writes about music technology for Wired and, says Spotify might. "To an extent, Spotify is basically like other services we've had," Van Buskirk says. "But the difference is, it has, I think, reduced the friction for people trying this stuff out. And that was one of the first things I noticed: it's just impossibly fast."

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.

"The problem with the environment when Spotify launched the service over three years ago is that the illegal alternatives were better, simply better than the legal ones," says Ken Parks, head of Spotify's New York office.

Parks says Spotify is trying to build a service in which creators get paid, but the user's experience doesn't suffer. "With a streaming service like Spotify that gives you access to everything in the world instantaneously," says Parks, "those distinctions between ownership and access tend to disappear."

To make this happen, Spotify borrows a few tricks from the peer-to-peer networks. Instead of downloading a single song file from its own server to you, Spotify searches for copies of the song wherever it can find them, including the computers of other Spotify users.

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

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 to replace, Spotify actually has licensing deals with the major record labels. And in September the company announced a deal with Facebook. Van Buskirk says that allows Facebook users to automatically share the songs they're listening to via Spotify.

"It gets closer and closer to that original Napster feeling," he says. "'What do my friends have? Can I have that?' And now it's like, 'Yes, you can.' And there's a whole mechanism for finding out what they have that you're already using anyway."

But Van Buskirk says Spotify's deals with the major record labels didn't come cheap. Spotify says it has more than 2 million paying users worldwide — although the company declined to discuss how many of them are in the U.S. Van Buskirk, and others, think the company will have to sign up a lot more if it's going to make a profit.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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