On losing Rdio

“Logged into Spotify. Ugh. It was like walking into a Sam Goody after years of shopping exclusively at a local, boutique, carefully-curated record store.”

–Rdio user Criminology

Yeah, so I accept that it’s a little weird to write a eulogy for a website. I accept that it’s completely self-indulgent to have gone into a deep funk over what is, effectively, a business going under (much less a business tin which I have no financial stake). But that’s what I’m here to do, because today the music streaming service Rdio will go dark. And I’m pretty damn sad about it.

First, some background. I mostly (and now only very occasionally) write about museum stuff here on this blog, but my background is originally in music. I have a composition degree from Berklee, and music remains one of the great loves of my life. When I’m at work, when I’m at home, when I have even a few minutes to myself, I’m listening. Like most people who are serious about (listening to and/or making) music, I am mildly irritated that there is still music out there that I haven’t heard yet. I’m constantly looking for new things I’ll love–listening for me is a never-ending quest of discovery. While living in Boston, I took jobs at music stores (whassup Nuggets!) mostly so I could get discounts on records.

So when I first heard about that Spotify was going to hit these shores in 2009/10, I was ready. I never invested much in the iTunes store model; when everyone around me was suddenly purchasing tunes for 99 cents and listening to playlists instead of albums, I was still buying CDs at Other Music. I managed my (ripped) mp3s in iTunes like everyone else, but the idea of spending real money on a non-physical medium just always seemed wrong, as if every mp3 I bought was helping to artificially prop up a dying business model. The kind of “all you can eat” unlimited streaming model made so much more sense. But in 2010, Spotify was still locking down licensing deals and hadn’t hit the US. Rdio beat them to the punch, and from the beta release (I joined in June 2010), I was hooked.

Rdio wasn’t perfect when it launched. It had gaping catalogue holes, and the social aspects of the service felt (at first) pretty tacked on. But they fixed that stuff pretty fast, and Rdio very quickly became a regular part of my life (apparenly, I’ve listened to over 2,700 hours of music on Rdio since joining). By the time Spotify made it to The States, the experience of using it was so miserable that there was no way I was going to make that switch. Every bit of Spotify just felt like I was being upsold at the register. Rdio was light-years ahead, both in terms of actual design, but also in terms of community design. Rdio was much better tuned tuned (pun! sort of!) to the needs of music lovers rather than music consumers than other platforms.

Music lovers and music consumers, as groups, are quite different from one another, despite their surface similarities. There’s a level of obsessiveness there that sets us apart. Music lovers won’t settle for the crappy 80s re-recording of  You Got Me Hummin’ when they can have the original version (don’t even try to tell me that some faceless 80s studio drummer is an acceptable substitute for Al Jackson). Music lovers will, when they find a new artist they like, spend days listening to every single record released by that same label. Music lovers will assemble a playlist of tunes featuring The Wrecking Crew studio musicians, just because:

So yeah, music lovers are weird. And most music platforms just aren’t tuned to what we need. We’re not going to listen to The National just because some piece of shit algorithm determined that that’s what we’d want to listen to after binging on Tortoise records. We rarely give a shit about what’s “hot.” We find mostly insulting the kinds of suggestions that probably make sense to a marketing person who is just trying to move units (“sorry, no results for John Zorn. Perhaps you’d be interested in the latest Katy Perry single”). Rdio mostly avoided this crap. It felt like Rdio made an attempt to understand us, in a way that is pretty rare with web “properties” these days. I’ll never forget the day that Rdio added a little link that allowed you to see an entire label’s catalogue at once. Things like that matter. Rdio’s “assets” (not the product itself) have been acquired by Pandora, with the goal of Pandora supposedly spinning up an on-demand service in late 2016. I would love to see something come out of that with the same degree of community response, but I’m not holding my breath. Pandora has to move units.

Sigh. I realize it’s strange to write about lines of code as if I’ve lost a friend, but that’s how it feels. You know, first world problems and whatever. I guess I’m less objective about music than other things. I’ve reluctantly moved to Spotify, and in so doing have said goodbye to a lot of people who I came to know over the last five years almost exclusively through their listening tastes. I’m sure I’ll get used to Spotify, and all will be well, but I agree with Criminology’s statement above: I just want to listen to music, but Spotify needs to upsell me at the register to stay in business. I understand that and accept it, but I don’t have to like it.

So that’s it, I guess. Rdio goes dark in a few hours, and with it goes another part of the web that felt special to me. If you need me, I’ll be listening to the new Katy Perry.

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