Spotify Launching In U.S. Thursday; Invite-Only Free, Instant Premium

Spotify sofa

U.S. music enthusiasts who have claimed all along that they would be willing to pay for Spotify will get their chance to prove it Thursday. The streaming music service has finally pulled off its long-promised launch and will go live tomorrow. Ad-supported unlimited free access — yes, you read that right — comes with a catch: it’s invite only and those invitations will be limited. (Leave an e-mail here and you’ll have a good shot.) But there’s an easier way in: pay for it.

Anyone who wants instant access can choose one of Spotify’s two subscription plans (assuming the site’s sign-up system can survive the crush):

— an ad-free $4.99 desktop edition that allows unlimited streaming. Spotify works on Windows (XP/Vista/7) and Mac (OS X 10.4.0 or later). There’s an unsupported Linux preview version.

— a $9.99 premium edition with no ads, unlimited streaming, offline mode for playlists on desktop and mobile, can be played through music systems like Sonos, claims enhanced audio quality and can be used on up to three mobile/portable devices. It launches with iOS and Android. (Symbian, Windows Phone 7 and Palm (NYSE: HPQ) are listed as coming soon.) It also includes exclusive content — and premium subs can travel outside the U.S. and keep listening.

As important for the next few weeks at least — the paid versions also come with four invites that can be shared.

All of the plans include a music manager for personally owned MP3s. But U.S. users will be missing one option available in Europe: a store. “There will be no download offering at launch,” Spotify Chief Content Officer Ken Parks told paidContent on the eve of the launch. “It will be coming soon.”

Another major difference: Spotify “open” plan users are limited to 20 hours a month for the first six months with limits on how many times each track can be played; it drops to 10 free hours after that. Invite-only U.S. users will get unlimited access at first as Spotify flexes its musical muscles to lure paying customers, or as a Spotify rep puts it, to celebrate the U.S. launch. Some launch partners will be giving away invites.

The plans have something else in common: social media. Spotify will be integrated into Facebook and tracks or playlists can be shared via Facebook, Twitter, SMS or e-mail. Will it be integrated with Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Plus? “We’re certainly looking at it,:” Parks said; a PR rep on the call added that no talks are currently underway.

Only other Spotify subscribers can play a track or a playlist. Spotify users can collaborate on playlists.

In the three years since founder Daniel Ek launched it in Sweden, Spotify has attracted more than 10 million registered users in Finland, France, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden or United Kingdom; more than 1.6 million are subscribers although the service doesn’t break it out.

Spotify is landing on a crowded shore, in a country that has so far largely been resistant to subscription music. (I’ve been a music subscriber for a decade or more and I can testify that it gets lonely.) Who does Parks see as the biggest competition? “We think that this product is unique. We think it offers a better experience to the service here.” But, he added, avoiding mentioning Pandora (NYSE: P) by name, “I’d rather not talk who the biggest competition is.”

Pandora announced Tuesday that it has reached 100 million users; that’s 10 times the number Spotify has in Europe.

Parks, managing director for Spotify USA, says the global catalog has some 15 million tracks and is growing every day but won’t say how many will be accessible in the U.S. Spotify will launch with all four major labels on board: Universal, EMI, Sony (NYSE: SNE) and Warner Music Group (NYSE: WMG). It also has a global agreement with Merlin, the indie music association. “We made a huge effort to license as much as possible, in particular indie content that might be ignored.”

Spotify can afford the U.S. launch. It raised $100 million earlier this year to fund international expansion.

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