Rest at ease, iTunes. SpiralFrog is no prince.
SpiralFrog is an ad-supported free-music download site that launched today after nearly five years of development and a year of beta testing. It boasts 800,000 songs and 3,500 videos available for download … free of charge.
The catch, of course, is that you must view advertising in order to download DRM-protected music and video. SpiralFrog is built on a revenue-sharing agreement with participating labels, and your eyeballs pay for the music.
In addition to viewing ads while searching for and downloading music, SpiralFrog requires you to log in to the site and view ads at least once every 30 days, or the downloaded music for the account becomes disabled.
Tracks from SpiralFrog also cannot be burned to a CD or transfered to an iPod, the top-selling digital music player, although files can be sent to two Windows Media Player-compatible devices or cell phones. (FAQ.)
While getting free music is compelling, I doubt SpiralFrog will knock the iTunes Music Store off its perch because, at least for me, the site was frustratingly slow (chalk this up to a lot of interest on launch day) and the interface to browse and download made me feel like I was querying a database and not thumbing through a digital record bin like iTunes.
Signing up for SpiralFrog is a breeze. You provide basic information, and SpiralFrog sends you a link and password to access the site. There SpiralFrog inspects your computer to determine if your system meets its requirements.
If you use a Mac, find a PC. SpiralFrog is available only for PCs running Windows XP or Vista and the browsers Internet Explorer and Firefox. I tested the site using a Dell laptop running Windows XP and Microsoft’s .NET framework.
You also will need to have Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 11 installed as the SpiralFrog files are packed full of DRM. The .Net platform is pre-installed on all newer PCs; however, if you have older equipment you may need to install it yourself.
Once all is in order, you can start browsing, downloading, and — most importantly to SpiralFrog — viewing ads.
The first thing you notice about SpiralFrog is, naturally, the advertising. There’s a slender banner ad at the top, a larger display ad along the right side, and when you are browsing for songs, ads for artists like Sonic Youth and Beck appear. Don’t be fooled, though: The ads are more for the labels than they are for the artists.
Even with the ads, SpiralFrog’s site is relatively clean and has many community and recommendation features found in iTunes. There’s tabs for Genres, Artists, New Releases, Top Downloads, Videos, News, Help, and Your Profile. Prominently featured are listings for New This Week!, Video, Buzz of the Day, What We’re Listening To, Breakout Bands, Top Downloads This Week, Featured Artist, We Recommend, and Music News.
But once you climb inside SpiralFrog, the comparisons with iTunes ends. SpiralFrog doesn’t feel like a digital record store like iTunes but rather like a music database that returns bland results in the linked 1-9, A-Z format.
I just returned from the Austin City Limits music festival, so I thought I’d query a few bands I watched perform. Searching for Wilco I was given links 1-7 for any band or performer with “Wilco” in their name. I got Wee Willie Wilcox and Bugsy Wilcox and it wasn’t until page 6 that I found Wilco.
Searching for bands and artists was painfully slow, but I attribute this to interest in SpiralFrog’s launch. If speed does not improve, no one will have the patience to wait a minute for a search result.
SpiralFrog has a $3.2 million dollar deal with the largest music label in the world, the Universal Music Group, and a few indie labels. But it lacks the breadth and depth of iTunes, which now boasts 6 million songs. To be fair, iTunes started modestly and built its catalog over time. SpiralFrog expects to have 2 million songs by the year’s end.
For now SpiralFrog seems heavy-handed toward Universal artists. I found plenty of albums and songs for Diana Krall, Maroon 5, R.E.M., Gwen Stefani, Rihanna, The Plain White T’s, The All-American Rejects, Snow Patrol and Kayne West.
Surprisingly I found listings for and brief bios of bands I saw at Austin City Limits like My Morning Jacket, Bloc Party, Wilco, The Decemberists, and Ghostland Observatory, but sadly there was no music to download.
Once I found band I was interested in, SpiralFrog returned well organized tabs for Albums, Songs, Other, Top Downloads, Video, and Discography for me to browse. Under songs for Diana Krall, for example, I found titles alphabetically organized, the album the song appeared on, the year it was released, the option to play a clip — like the 30-second preview on iTunes — and a download icon.
Click on a song you want to download and it appears in the Download Manager in the upper right corner of the interface. The Download Manager will always be there, allowing you to continue browsing (and viewing ads) while the song downloads.
When the process worked, the song downloaded into a default folder or a folder you designated in the Download Manager setup. In my case, a folder named SpiralFrog was created (ironically) next to the iTunes folder in My Music. When you find the song you want to listen to, you can play it in Windows Media Player but not in iTunes
The process, however, didn’t work for much of the day — again, probably due to the traffic on the site. I’d click on a song or album and the Download Manager indicated it was downloading the choice, but I never found the selections. You are supposed to be able to listen to the song via the Download Manager, but that never worked either today.
To be fair, SpiralFrog is a nice alternative to iTunes and the pay-to-own-your-music model and Rhapsody’s subscriber alternative. Certainly the rest of the music industry will be watching SpiralFrog’s success, or lack of, closely in the coming months.
But overall SpiralFrog’s catalog is not very impressive and it’s frustrating to search for a band, only to find a short bio and no downloadable music. If all you want to do is research a band, why not go to its Website or MySpace page?
You also need patience to use SpiralFrog. I expect the site’s speed to increase over the next few days when the newness wears off, but that’s not going to improve the experience of wading through a poor user interface and search engine when learning about bands and downloading their music.
Finally, who is going to use SpiralFrog? Moms and Dads? Office workers? The targeted demographic is up to 30-years-old, but I’m not so sure. Despite the RIAA’s efforts, kids still trade music and download from sites such as iTunes or from peer-to-peer networks. Many of these kids have iPods, and SpiralFrog music will not play on Apple devices.
And all of us — young and older alike — are busy and mobile. Will we want to sit through ads just to download music?