Rdio is releasing a free version of its service today on iOS and Android, bringing personalized radio to non-paying users of its mobile apps for the first time. Free of advertising for now, Rdio’s unpaid offering represents a chance for the underdog streaming service to gain traction by adopting one of the most popular features of its competitors. But with personalized radio a standard feature on rivals like Pandora and Spotify, can even ad-free access make a difference?
I wrote about Rdio’s new free radio offering, which might get more folks to try it. But in a world where seemingly every music service has a free offering, how much can it help?
Perpetua responds with characteristic grace to my post about the future of sites like Fluxblog. While acknowledging that emerging forms of sharing can be more efficient, he smartly defends the utility of blogs like his in an environment where corporate interests still prevent music from being easily shared. There’s a punk ethos to MP3 blogging that often goes unspoken these days, because sharing songs without corporate permission no longer strikes us as a radical act. But in 2002 it absolutely was, and in many ways it still is.
Perpetua doesn’t say it, but the other thing we would lose if MP3 blogs all died is the writing. Every day I rely on writers like Perpetua, Abebe and Breihan to help me unpack what I’m listening to, to see it in new ways. At their best they shine a light on some facet of a song I would never otherwise consider, or persuade me to take a chance on a band I intended on skipping. Writing about music is famously difficult, making sites like Fluxblog that have maintained such high quality for ten years all the more precious.
And yet — if I might chip away a bit more at the utility of blogs like my own — most of that writing goes to waste. How many times have you seen a paragraph of text on your Dashboard about a song or band you had never heard, and skipped right over it? Later you’ll encounter the song in another context — in the car, at a party, on a playlist you’ve subscribed to — and you’ll try to remember who had posted something about that song and what they had said. And you will not remember. The reason that images are exalted on Tumblr is because they can be appreciated immediately, in the moment. Too music music and music writing finds us here when we aren’t ready to listen.
Which is why Spotify et al would be smart to license content from music writers and let people subscribe to it. Perpetua famously (and wonderfully) wrote about every song ever recorded by R.E.M., a band whose earlier work I had almost completely ignored till last year. (The first R.E.M. record I ever spent real time with was Up, which is so weird!) I could have gone back and tried to read Perpetua’s posts while I fell headfirst into Murmur and Life’s Rich Pageant, if the thought had occurred to me at the time. But what if I could just subscribe to Perpetua on Rdio and, in addition to seeing his playlists, also see his commentaries on the songs I was listening to at the moment I was listening to them?
Nowadays we think it’s barbaric to have to watch a television show as it airs live. Why should we have to be ready to reflect on unfamiliar music whenever it pops up on our Dashboards? Why can’t we time-shift music and music commentary the same way we time-shift TV?
Whatever the case, I hope sites like Fluxblog lead long and happy lives. Even as the Spotifys of the world make it easier for us to discover and share music with us, we remain in need of discerning minds to help us explore them. And that’s as true today as it has ever been.
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.
Recently I mentioned that I have shifted most of my music listening to Rdio, a mostly-streaming service run by a startup here in San Francisco. Rdio is as close as I’ve seen a company come to the celestial jukebox — a service where you type any artist, album or song title into a search box, and start listening to a full stream almost instantly. Unlike with Pandora, you can listen to anything you want whenever you want; you don’t get penalized for skipping tracks. For $5 a month, you can stream an unlimited amount of music from any computer; for $10, you get the added benefit of being able to sync an unlimited amount of music to your mobile devices, such as an iPhone and iPad.
Here I’m going to walk through what I like about the service. But first I want to acknowledge Rdio’s primary drawbacks:
- You’re renting music. So when you leave the service, whatever you’ve synced to your mobile devices will disappear back into the cloud. (This is also the case with Rhapsody, Napster and similar services.)
- If you pay $5 a month, you can only stream music over an Internet connection. As widely available as the Internet might be, it’s not everywhere. So if you’re out and about, your music access is only as good as your cell connection. (This tends to be a bigger deal in San Francisco than it is in, say, Arizona.)
- If you’re streaming a lot of music over a cell phone connection and don’t have an unlimited data plan, streaming music will quickly eat into your monthly limits.
The first drawback I mentioned is the biggest for most people, and for a long time I was firmly in the “I must own all my music" camp. But as with anything else, the more music you own, the more of a burden it becomes. You have to tend to the metadata, you have store it, you have to back it up. Eventually maintaining your collection becomes a psychic burden not unlike having a giant pile of vinyl to tend to. And so I became curious what life looked on the other side. I much prefer renting an apartment to owning a house; maybe I would feel the same way about music. And so a couple months ago I let go of the "must own music" dogma to experience life as a renter. Full disclosure: I got a three-month trial as part of my job. But I’m sticking around when it ends, and I’ll be going with the $10 plan. Here’s why:
- It’s legal way to listen to music that still allows me to support artists I like.
- It’s incredibly cheap. Just because I don’t want to download music illegally doesn’t mean I want to spend a ton of money on unknown bands each month. Until recently I was spending $15 a month on eMusic; then they destroyed their value proposition and I quit. By contrast, $10 a month for access to eight million songs feels like a bargain.
- It encourages you to listen to more music, and more kinds of music. This week I’m listening to bands I never would have even considered buying on eMusic, like new records from Acid House Kings and the Thao and Mirah record. Having paid your $5 or $10, there’s just no risk in trying out something new. It’s true that NPR offers limited streams of forthcoming albums, as do others, but that only applies to the new stuff. With Rdio, whenever I find anything I want to hear — whether it’s the brand new TV on the Radio or an ancient R.E.M. record — I simply click “add to queue” next to the album’s title, and the record goes into a list of albums that I can listen to in whatever order I like, whenever I like.
- It encourages you to try older stuff. I don’t know about you guys, but there are vast and embarrassing gaps in my musical knowledge. Among the albums I had never listened to before Rdio were R.E.M.’s early recordings, classic Prince records, the Replacements catalog, the two Of Montreal records before Hissing Fauna, and The Low End Theory. Once I joined Rdio I just added them all to my queue and listened to them at work. My favorite ‘discovery’ so far was the Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I, which I know everyone already loves, but I had never heard it before and I wound up syncing it to my phone and now I listen to it all the fucking time because it’s awesome.
- The software is good at surfacing new stuff. Every Tuesday, Rdio presents you with a list of new recordings. (In a smart piece of user interface design, the albums appear to be ordered by how often they’ve been listened to. In other words, the presentation is crowd sourced.) The new albums are added at the same time those records hit the stores, so you can always hear the newest stuff. Each week, Rdio also puts together a decent playlist of songs from the week’s new recordings. It was hitting ‘shuffle’ on one of those playlists, and being delighted at all the weird stuff that I was hearing, that led me to sign up for the service in the first place.
- There are social features. If you join you can see what I’m listening to and vice versa. You can listen to my playlists, including my favorite tracks of the year so far. Unfortunately this feature is limited to other Rdio users; I would love if I could embed on Crumbler a playlist of everything I liked in a given month so that y’all could stream it. Perhaps in time. (I’ve asked Rdio’s product people about this directly; it doesn’t seem like the feature is coming in the near future.)
- It scrobbles to Last.fm. This might not be important to you, but when it comes to music I am an absolute data nerd, and listening to most of my music in Rdio doesn’t mean that I have to give up analytics on (for example) what artists I’ve listened to most in the past year or what tracks I’ve returned to again and again. Last.fm combines scrobbles from iTunes with Rdio scrobbles, giving you a good overall picture of what you’re listening to the most.
Switching my music listening primarily to Rdio has meant giving up my old insistence on listening to every new album I download at least 10 times. By its nature, the system encourages you to spend less time with more albums. And maybe that will mean that I never realize how awesome a deep cut on the new Cass McCombs record is. But for the most part I’ve felt that the system has introduced me to more good music than my old system did, and at a significantly lower cost.
None of this is to say that Rdio is perfect. Suffice to say that my appreciation for the service is extremely price sensitive, and based on a lack of a similar option from Apple or Spotify. But increasingly I think that cloud-based options are the future of music listening, particularly for music obsessives who want to have listened to everything without (a) paying for everything or (b) downloading everything illegally.
If you’re curious, there’s a 7-day trial for you to play around with. If you join, let me know — I’d love to follow you and see what you’re listening to.