This week, in a move little noticed outside the tech world, the music service Rdio unveiled a new design. During an event at South By Southwest, its designers described the new look using plainspoken language. The new Rdio is faster, they said. Simpler. And also: “more social.” But to me there was a more substantial point, unmentioned in their handsome Keynote slides. Rdio and services like it were undermining many of the reasons I had started blogging about music in the first place.
Crumbler is now four years old. In March 2008, when it launched, MP3 blogs were relatively mature as a format. (Fluxblog, the first of its kind, debuted in 2002.) It’s worth thinking about why MP3 blogs developed in the way that they did. The MP3 was by 2002 a few years old, and the rapid adoption of both broadband networks and Napster had made it feasible to trade them around in large numbers. In 2003 Apple opened the iTunes Store, and more of us began thinking about music in terms of individual songs over full-length albums. MP3 blogs were first and foremost an outlet for their creators’ enthusiasm, of course. But there was also a strong element of utility behind them: Which of all these newly available songs should I listen to? How do I get them without buying an $18 CD?
The way to do that back then was to cultivate a list of favorite music sites and visit them daily. (Bound by copyright rules, pros like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone were slow to host songs themselves.) But there were problems with the web-surfing approach. For starters, hosting and giving away those MP3s was not (and is not) typically legal, and sites have always been at risk of being shuttered over copyright claims. Second, it requires the reader to track and regularly visit a series of far-flung websites, at a time when Web surfing is on the decline. Three, it requires downloading, organizing and backing up an ever-growing number of files. No wonder that worldwide traffic to top MP3 blogs, compared that of an average cat GIF blog, is asymptotically approaching zero.
But suppose for a moment that we could skip the MP3 blog era entirely. If she were starting today, how would a person of great musical taste and enthusiasm, using the technologies now available, share her favorite songs with the world?
First and most importantly, she would bring her taste to the place where people are already listening to music: the software itself. No more Web surfing, no more RSS feeds, no more relying on Twitter for links. Just as the curator belongs inside the museum, so does the music blogger belong inside the music player, a kind of human Pandora station.
Having gotten that access, our music fan would gather her favorite songs in a place where they could be easily found, and listened to on demand, by anyone who was interested, without any friction. No 30-second snippets, no micropayments to hear the track. Just click and play. Perhaps she could even push her listening habits to Facebook, where her friends were spending most of their time on the Internet anyway, and if they wanted they could start listening to her picks directly from there.
Our enthusiast would embrace a following/follower model, so that she could track the listening habits of people she liked and people who liked her could do the same. She could choose to share privately, either on separate playlists or by sharing songs and albums directly with people who had confirmed her as a friend. She could annotate any playlist she wanted with her commentary, or she could eschew commentary altogether. And she would do it all within the bounds of the law, so that she never had to worry about Tumblr shutting down her blog because she had violated a copyright.
This dream version of MP3 blogging already exists, of course, in the form of Rdio and Spotify. (Also in other services like MOG and Rhapsody, but Rdio and Spotify are the clear leaders here.) A feature Rdio introduced this week allows you to view the week’s new albums at a glance, and share them with friends simply by dragging and dropping them onto your friend’s picture. It’s simple and delightful, and it got me thinking about the future of blogs like this one.
Which isn’t to say that the services that could replace MP3 blogs are without constraints. There are a few big ones. First, while they offer free trials, you won’t have a great experience unless you pay. At $5 a month for basic streaming access, Rdio and Spotify are hardly expensive. But the fees are clearly keeping Americans away. The combined number of paying music subscribers in America is still probably less than 7 million people, according to an analyst I spoke with, compared with 24 million who pay for Netflix and 21 million who pay for Sirius XM.
Second, these services rely on complicated licensing deals, which mean that various albums are unavailable for weeks (or forever) after going on sale. I can find 90 percent or more of what I’m looking for on Rdio, but the missing 10 percent is bothersome. There’s also the danger that the labels will quit renewing the contracts, or that they’ll charge so much in fees that the services will go under, as some have predicted.
In any case the services will likely never host the kind of webjunk that can make music blogging so delightful — the audio feed from a great live performance video, the ludicrous mash-ups, the inspired covers by no-names, the unsigned acts who manage to release a masterpiece. Many of my favorite songs are fan recordings from concerts, which are unlikely to ever turn up on Spotify. It’s a shame: These are an essential part of being a music fan, and there ought to be a place for finding and enjoying them just as seamless as the music services.
More important than any of that, though, is what’s known as the empty room problem. A social network requires lots of people, and until they are there interacting with you the experience is depressing. Tumblr’s growth has been spurred by how easy its developers made it to interact, its roaring engine of red hearts and reblogs spurring people to join it by the tens of millions. And yet sharing music with my followers here has most of the same problems that MP3 blogging has always had. (The Dashboard gathers lots of good content into one place, which at least solves the web-surfing problem.) Rdio, on the other hand, is a wonderful way to share music with people that is used by almost nobody.
“The challenge is getting people to use it,” Rdio’s CEO, Drew Larner, told me this week. “Because once they use it, they’re hooked.” If enough people try it, we could see music blogging as we once knew it evolve into something much different. Rdio has already made it possible to follow indie labels and even Pitchfork; wouldn’t it be great if Pitchfork just dropped every record to be named “Best New Music” directly into your inbox?
The world isn’t there yet. But it does seem to be the direction where it’s moving. And my guess is it will look more like the Rdio of today than the Fluxblog of yesteryear. The future is already here, as William Gibson once said. It’s just not evenly distributed.