This post is from staff writer Sierra Black. Sierra writes about frugality, sustainable living, and raising children at Childwild.com.

Europe’s hit music-listening service has finally launched in the United States. Spotify is here, and it’s already changed the way I listen to music. J.D. is a huge fan, too. I’m so excited about Spotify that I’m breaking my usual habit of not doing product reviews to write about it.

What is Spotify?
SpotifySpotify is a service that lets you listen to any song in the Spotify library — any time you want. It’s kind of like iTunes: You can search for what you want, set up playlists, sort by artist or album or genre. The difference is that instead of drawing only from your own music library, you have access to all of Spotify’s 15 million song library. J.D. likens it to a musical version of Netflix streaming, only with less hassle and better selection.

The biggest complaint I heard from people who’d tried it was that the music discovery features were seriously lacking. It was great for listening to exactly what you want, but if you want a music service to recommend new bands or stream a customized radio station for you, Spotify wasn’t it. They’ve now added an “Artist Radio” tab that includes a streaming radio station of similar artists for every artist in their library. This feature makes Spotify even more useful to someone like me, who doesn’t always know what they want to hear.

Note: Spotify also has a neat social sharing feature that lets you easily see what your friends are listening to, publish playlists for others to enjoy and share music.

You can use Spotify for free, or you can pay for their premium subscription service. There are two tiers to the paid version:

  • A $4.99 per month subscription that gives you an ad-free listening experience.
  • A $9.99 premium subscription that comes with additional features like improved sound quality, access to mobile apps and offline use.

I’ve been using the free version and am perfectly satisfied with the sound quality. J.D. signed on for the premium service and says, “$120 a year seems like a bargain to me to have cloud-based access to all of my music at any time from any device, especially since that allows me to download songs for off-line listening.” He says he’s been using Spotify non-stop since it was released in the U.S. two weeks ago. For him, it’s almost completely replaced iTunes, Pandora, and SiriusXM.

J.D.’s note: It’s true. For a couple of years, I’ve been using three different services to access music. But for the past two weeks, I’ve mostly used Spotify. (I still need iTunes for audiobooks.)

Access Replaces Ownership
Spotify changes the approach to building a music library. Suddenly it’s no longer about ownership, but rather about access. The L.A. Times review of Spotify sums it up this way:

With the arrival of Swedish-born, London-based cloud service Spotify on American shores July 14, along with the progress of Google Music, and the impending launch of Apple’s iCloud music service, this year will be remembered as the year in which keeping our own copies of music, be it physically on CDs and LPs, or digitally as MP3s on our hard drives, became a decision, not a necessity, for both casual fans and music obsessives.

Instead of buying each individual track or album, you can pay for access to a vast collection and then organize and share it as you choose. Or, if you’re a casual music listener like me, you don’t even need to pay for the service. The free version still allows you to make and share your own playlists, and to listen to playlists from your friends.

J.D. says that not owning the music is actually an advantage for him, since he’s in “owning less” mode. If owning your music collection is what matters to you, this isn’t the service for you. One friend I talked to, a former DJ, said he was concerned about what would happen if he lost access to the music collection he built up through Spotify. Say you used the service for four years, built all your playlists and favorites in it, and then something happened and it was unavailable. That’d be a major loss. He’d rather keep buying his music and retain control. Spotify does let you export and share playlists, though, which seems to address that concern. If they went out of business or changed their service in a way that made it unusable to me, I think I’d be able to port my playlists and personal library out to whatever new service I was using.

I think the hype around this service is well-placed: For most of us, some kind of subscription-based access to music collections will probably replace ownership of individual albums and MP3s.

Other Options
Of course, Spotify isn’t the only music-listening service out there. I’ve most frequently seen it compared (not always favorably) to Rdio and Grooveshark. Both offer users the ability to make playlists and search a vast library of music, though neither has as extensive a collection as Spotify. While Spotify provides its own music library, the Grooveshark music library is entirely user-generated. The two services seem to have different gaps in their collections because of this.

There are also cloud storage music systems like Amazon Cloud Player and the emerging Google Music, which let you store your own music library on the web. You’re still buying all your music though, instead of subscribing to access a larger collection.

Where The Party Is – Third Party Apps And Sites
Then I found Spotify’s list of web resources, and it’s awesome power was revealed to me. While the Spotify app doesn’t do everything I want it to, there are other websites and plug-ins that Spotify users have created that do all I want and more. There are websites where you can share and discover playlists, sites to automatically generate playlists, apps to create mashups between Spotify and Last FM…you name it. There’s a huge amount of creativity and ingenuity that has been poured into making Spotify work exactly the way you want. It just takes a little customization on your part.

Here are some of my favorite resources (all free):

  • Sharemyplaylists.com: This is a huge collection of playlists from Spotify users all over the world. You can search for playlists by song, artist or genre. You can also connect with other users. There’s also a tab that lets you generate playlists based on an artist you like, kind of like the Genius button in iTunes or a radio station on Pandora.
  • Lastify: A Last FM mashup that adds Last FM’s Love, Ban and Tag functions to Spotify. There’s also a search tool that lets you add a little Spotify link to any song in Last FM, letting you search it on Spotify and add it to your library if you want.
  • Spotiseek: A web app that creates Spotify playlists based on music you like.
  • There’s also a Spotify browser extension that lets you highlight any song or artist name in a website and search automatically for their music.

There are literally dozens of cool websites and apps to make Spotify do tricks. I’ve spent hours playing with them and barely scratched the surface.

If you’re curious what this new service can do, I strongly recommend checking out their web resources section and killing an evening trying out some of the different tools. I still wish the Spotify app itself were more robust and included more of iTunes features for organizing music, but now that I know I can make it do anything I want through these third-party tools, I’m totally hooked.

Getting Spotify
Right now, the free version of Spotify is invitation only, and they’re being fairly slow about sending the invites out. If you want to try it and don’t want to wait, you can sign up for one of their paid service tiers. If you’re a Klout user, you can try to become a Spotify ambassador and get instant access. Sign five of your friends up through Klout and they’ll throw in a free month of premium service. I didn’t go for that because I don’t like spamming my friends with free offers, but if you think your social network would like to know about Spotify, you could use that route and get a perk for telling them.

The bottom line is that Spotify just expanded the collection of music I have at my fingertips from the few thousand songs in my personal music library to the over 15 million songs in theirs. I’ve only been using it for a week, but it’s already clear to me that this permanently changes how I listen to and consume music. For me, the days of buying MP3s are basically over. I’ll be accessing on-demand cloud services rather than paying to construct my own library from here on out, just like I stopped buying DVDs years ago in favor of Netflix.

J.D.’s note

Why am I willing to pay $120/year for Spotify? Because I’ve been paying more than that for music through iTunes, etc. In theory (and only time will see if this is true), Spotify will save me money — plus, I find it more convenient.

Though I’m a fan of Spotify, it’s not for everyone. As Sierra says, if you need to own your music, give this a pass. But I’m trying to move my digital life to the Cloud. Music has been a big barrier to this. No more. At this very moment, I’m sitting at an internet cafe in Banff, Alberta, using a tiny MacBook Air to edit blog posts (stored on Dropbox) and listen to music on Spotify. It’s like I’m living in the future!