Spotify is an “online music service,” but that doesn’t make it “radio”

There have been a lot of references in the trade press recently to the anticipated U.S. debut of Spotify that call it an “online radio service.” I believe that’s a misnomer. Here’s my rationale:

For many decades now, consumers have listened to two forms of audio entertainment. To make the discussion easier, let’s focus on music. Basically, you can listen to the music you own, or you can listen to the radio.

In the former case — listening to the music you own — you’re in control. You can say, “I think I’ll listen to ‘Heartache Tonight’ by the Eagles right now” and then you can do so. Or you can grab a stack of LPs and shuffle them and stack them on the changer on your turntable. (Putting a random stack of LPs on the changer on your turntable is the 1970s equivalent of hitting “shuffle” in iTunes.)

In the latter case — listening to the radio — you typically have access to a wider library of music, but you give up some level of control. To be specific, someone else (or something else, such as a DJ or a radio station’s Selector or MusicMaster scheduling system or Pandora’s decision heuristics) is making the choices.

(To add a bit more color to this, I would further argue that if your roommate is picking the songs from his collection, you may have given up control and gotten some more variety, but that’s not “radio” either. There’s got to be some component of it being done from a distance, and for the enjoyment of multiple other people than the music programmer himself or herself.)

Pandora and other brands of Internet radio are modern versions of radio: An intelligence (i.e., some combination of people and computers) at a distance from you is creating programming for the enjoyment of numerous listeners.

Spotify and Rhapsody, on the other hand, are modern versions of your music collection: You have access to a large library of songs and you can listen to them on demand in the order you want to listen to them.

Yes, true, both Spotify and Rhapsody have a “radio” feature as part of their product offering. However, as far as we know, Rhapsody’s radio feature has never gotten a lot of consumer take-up. The fact Spotify and Rhapsody offer a radio component to their service doesn’t make them “an online radio service“ any more than the fact that McDonald’s has salads on the menu makes it “a salad restaurant.”

McDonald’s isn’t a “salad restaurant,” and Spotify isn’t a “radio service” — at least as I understand how consumers are primarily using those brands today. In Spotify’s case: “Music service,” yes. But “radio,” no.

[Want to debate this or help me fine-tune my definition of “radio”? Write me at]

Kurt Hanson