Review: SpiralFrog's ad-supported music download service

spiralfrogRest 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.

Getting Started

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 Site

spiralfrog adThe 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.

wilco searchI 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.

Who’s There?

krallSpiralFrog 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.

The Process

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.

spiralfrog download managerClick 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.

Impressions

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?

last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

26 Responses to “Review: SpiralFrog's ad-supported music download service”

  1. Decklane says:

    It’s funny because it’s essentially the same model as the illegal ‘sharing’ sites, that are funded by advertising. I also see problem in the demographic that they are targeting. How interested are advertisers in contacting people who are too cheap to pay for their entertainment ? I believe sales of DVDs of TV shows have been quite popular. It’s not at all clear that entertainment is all going to the free ad supported model of radio/television.

  2. Snazz says:

    It might also be worth mentioning that the log-on-every-month ‘feature’ to keep your music ‘alive’ will bite users in the ass if/when the site is no longer supported.

    (Didn’t another service have this problem recently? They went out of business and everyone’s ‘purchased’ (rented really) media was no longer accessible)

  3. Mike says:

    I tried this yesterday (Sept 17) – what a TOTAL waste of time. After about an hour of futzing around I was still unable to download anything. The site was horribly slow.

    Hint: pay the 0.99 cents or use peer-to-peer. Don’t waste your time with Spiralfrog.com

  4. Fail.

    Three words: TOO MANY CONDITIONS

    a few others: RESTRICTIONS, DRM, ADS, LIMITATIONS

    Is it really that difficult? If users can’t buy it once and listen to it on their choice of player when and where they want, they’ll go elsewhere. Jesus, you’d think the industry would have figured that out by now.

    And one last word: SLOW

  5. Nuggett76 says:

    Very well written piece. I’ve been following SpiralFrog’s plan for some time now. Not impressed at all. I’m no apple fanboy, but the windows media player compatible devices and windows media pale in comparison to what Apple offers. I would rather be stuck in DRM hell with Apple over Microsoft anyday… Just my $0.02

  6. Jared says:

    I jumped on the site to check it out and like you I find searching annoying (2 minutes of clicking to find Kiss). I was also kind of hoping to find a way around DRM and put the songs on my iPod, but alas it looks like it would be more work than it is worth.
    But the most annoying thing is the amount of time you have to spend on the site, not only due to speed problems, but due to the fact that only one song downloads at a time (read: more time to look at ads). During this time I managed to download six songs, and play one of those ad games. Spiralfrog has the chance to be a great thing but DRM and speed of the site hold it back. Its too bad, really, free legal music from big artists, is great. O well maybe someday!

  7. Mom says:

    I, too, checked out the site today, and it was painfully slow until after 5 PM EST. But I’m betting traffic slows post-launch and/or SF buys more bandwidth and it’ll speed up. As far as the DRM, once you’ve installed http://analogwhole.com/ or http://www.soft29.com/freeware/fairuse4wm.htm, it’s no longer an issue and you can use the music you’ve downloaded how you want, when you want.

  8. Paul says:

    Hey, I’ve been using this for about a month now, and I really like it.

  9. Becks says:

    So I tried to check this out but, I’m sorry, if you’re not in the apparently uberhub of music in canada or america then you’re not invited to the party.
    so no way is this going to take over from itunes. at least people from other countries can get to itunes!

  10. I checked it out and I think that is really nice… however, there are only some countries that can download their music. But that’s understandable since they just started.

  11. Kurt says:

    From reading blogs and own experience the website is just so slow! And the opinion is generally negative. I found a UK based model backed by Peter Gabriel called We7 or aka as I like to call it, “the Frogstomp”. Its a similar model in that its free music, paid for by advertising but thats where the similarities end. The tracks are DRM free, they are to keep, they work on all formats (ie Mac and PC) and mp3 players, good news for ipod users! The site isnt slow like Spiral frog and it doesnt require you to come back to the site. The advertising is delived in the form of a 10 second audio clip before tracks, but as I understand it, they are to be targeted to the applicable user. The catalogue is much smaller but I read its only been around since May and it has over 100,000 tracks. It works in all countries, check it out!

  12. DAve says:

    I have no problems with downloading :)

  13. Thomas says:

    Yeah, it works perfectly for me. The site is really fast. I don’t know what you other guys are talking about. Maybe your flash players are clogging up your RAM with excess data, but mine works fine. From reading Kurt’s post, its easy to tell that he works for We7…. That one doesnt have a very large selection at all. For now I’ll stay with Spiralfrog for my mainstream needs and torrents for more underground stuff.

  14. Rascal says:

    Been using Spiralfrog for a month. Just did the renewal of membership thing, and it was pretty easy. Probably about 10 questions related to the site (like, how did you find the site? rate this, rate that, etc.). And that’s all I had to do to renew every license of all the songs I downloaded. Pretty good setup, I’d say!

    Highly recommended.

  15. Kitcat says:

    I tried to go on this site from the UK but still couldn’t, even though old newspaper articles said it would be up and running here in the spring! It’s a bit rubbish!

  16. Lauren says:

    Is this site still legal(spiralfrog?)

  17. christina says:

    Hmmm, It worked fantastically for my little sister (she had one of those supported mp3 players) – and I had no problem downloading anything. However, I wasn’t impressed by their selection- it wasn’t my style. (Again though, my little sister loved it)

  18. Ed Nichols says:

    I really like the site. Found songs that I could’t find anywhere else. No problems so far.

  19. Jack says:

    I can understand the general frustration, but I rather enjoy SpiralFrog. I don’t understand why a ten second audio clip is less annoying than a constant visual ad, that can be blocked by certain pop up blockers or just ignored. I have downloaded a few hundred songs, albeit most are Christian artists, but it wasn’t that difficult. I just pick a couple of albums, then watch TV, play a game, or just surf the web. I either leave the music on my computer or put it on my phone. If you have a compatible device, I don’t see why you wouldn’t rather get it for free. I know it won’t come anywhere close to iTunes but I can pay for dinner for at least a week with the money I saved. I just think you guys should give it more of a chance.

  20. Kristina says:

    I like the idea behind spiralfrog, but it just didn’t seem to work for me. I tried it with my sansa, but it ended up making the songs I actually owned not work on my mp3 player within days! I don’t know if it was just a bug with my mp3 player, but I had to reset it and the songs would still not play. I had to go through a ridiculously long process to put a lot of my songs back on my sansa and have them work. And the spiralfrog songs didn’t even last a month on my mp3 player. I would go on the site to renew it, but it never seemed to renew the songs. I would have to re-download it. It messed up my mp3 player to the point that I got frustrated and bought an ipod. I say if it works for you, great, but be cautious.

  21. Jo says:

    I want to Install spiralfrog i just need to re register I have a time getting it back on my computer. Please help me . Email me Right Back. Thanks alot.

  22. jeff davis says:

    downloaded lots of vidios now can’t log on any more.

  23. jeff davis says:

    whats that mean?

  24. Pat says:

    Spiral Frog got shut down earlier this year. In March I think. Anyway, it isn’t working anymore.

  25. Pat says:

    Stinks that Spiral Frog got shutdown

  26. Mom says:

    I, too, checked out the site today, and it was painfully slow until after 5 PM EST. But I'm betting traffic slows post-launch and/or SF buys more bandwidth and it'll speed up. As far as the DRM, once you've installed http://analogwhole.com/ or http://www.soft29.com/freeware/fairuse4wm.htm, it's no longer an issue and you can use the music you've downloaded how you want, when you want.