Sunday, August 3, 2014

Rdio vs. Spotify (For Cheapskates)

To the extent that I am not actually a paying subscriber to any of these services, I also do not count myself a true user of any of them. As someone who enjoys music and likes to keep up with new releases, however, but doesn’t generally need or want a soundtrack to accompany my entire daily life, I used to turn to Spotify as my free (ad-supported) on-demand streaming service of choice. Really, for cheapskates like me, there have only ever been two options: Spotify or Rdio. I used Spotify because its free version was more transparent; Rdio had an unspecified limit on how much you could listen to without paying. But, since Rdio removed all caps for web-based streaming at the beginning of this year, I decided to give it a try. It wasn’t like I was invested in Spotify in any literal sense, after all.

Truthfully, unless you’re a tech junkie, there is not a whole lot to distinguish Rdio from Spotify or from any of the other major competitors (Beats Music, Google Play Music All Access, Rhapsody etc.), such that anyone should feel strong personal attachments to one over all the others (well, unless you literally have a personal connection to the company). They all offer similarly large and overlapping catalogs, including most of the current releases that the average user would be looking for. Spotify has a slight edge overall in song selection, with such notable exclusives as Led Zeppelin and Metallica.

In addition to expansive on-demand catalogs, music discovery is another pillar of any streaming service experience. In fact, Beats Music’s entire competitive strategy is based around its playlists curated by actual human tastemakers—the sole premium it can offer over its more established competitors. Since Beats has no free version, I haven’t been able to put its curators to the test, but I’m skeptical. I’ve tried other services, including Slacker and Songza, which boasted “expert-programmed stations” or a “music concierge," and I felt they were way off the mark, so I have zero confidence in any such concepts.

Rdio and Spotify are both more barebones in this regard. They both let you browse new releases and top charts, and they will both make recommendations based on the music you’ve been listening to, with Spotify being considerably more aggressive in bringing things to your attention via its cluttered interface.

They also both include a bit of social networking, so you can see what’s hot among people you’re following. Spotify is the platform most likely to be used by a number of your Facebook friends, so if you use your own Facebook account to log in, you’ll see a lot of your friends on Spotify, along with what they’ve been listening to. I don’t find this to be a useful feature at all, because my Facebook friend list includes a broad spectrum of acquaintances with tastes far from my own.

Rdio can also integrate with Facebook, but the San Francisco-based service has cultivated a more techie-hipsterish following, so you’re less likely to run into your older or more conservative Facebook friends on Rdio. On the other hand, one of the freakier experiences for me personally was when I randomly came across, not a Facebook friend at all, but a former college classmate from one of my short fiction workshops of almost a decade ago.

Rdio had notified me of a new release I might be interested in, and I clicked on the link to check it out. I found that it had only been played a dozen times at that point. (This public data is actually pretty interesting. I never would have guessed how few plays some of the artists I listen to get.) Rdio further tracks the recent activity for an album, displaying the most recent listeners. And there among them I saw, to my horror, the name of this old classmate I hadn't even thought of in years, who was shown as having listened only “a moment ago.” Terrified at even the remotest possibility that I might have to reconnect with this person, I naturally freaked out, got the hell off that page, and shut everything down. (One knock against Rdio: there’s no way to clean out your public listening history, except to make your entire account private.)

One of the neater things about Rdio is that some of the artists have accounts, and you can follow them just as you would any other user. Spotify’s “verified artist accounts” are ostensibly the same idea, but, on Rdio, some of these artists actually use their accounts to listen to music themselves, so you can see, not just some promotional playlist that they were paid to put together, but what they might be actively listening to on their own. Rdio is not as bustling with artist activity as Soundcloud or, for that matter, YouTube, but some of the semi-active artist accounts I’ve found include MNDR, Little Boots, and Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino. Sometimes you might even, by complete coincidence, find yourself listening to the same album at the same time as Greta Morgan of Gold Motel and The Hush Sound.


That cool moment notwithstanding, I pretty quickly found that I didn’t much care what anybody else was listening to, be they friends, hip strangers, or any of the artists I myself listened to. So Rdio is not any more useful to me in this regard than any other service.

Both Rdio and Spotify also offer Pandora-style automated radio stations, which are theoretically supposed to aid both with discovering new music and with relieving you from the tyranny of choice, when you simply can’t decide what to play out of your massive library. For non-paying users, these stations are the only way to experience Rdio or Spotify on your mobile device.

In my experience, Rdio’s stations lag way behind just about every other service I’ve tried. As on Pandora, you pick an artist, song, or genre, and then Rdio will queue up songs from “similar” artists. To help Rdio get a better sense of your tastes, you can “thumbs up” tracks you like, as they play on the station. For me, after I gave my thumbs up to about 10-20 tracks (and thumbs down to a few others), Rdio started to play almost nothing but those same 10-20 tracks, even after I tuned the slider toward more adventurous, and even after I tried switching to a different station (albeit a similar one, as per my tastes). It wouldn’t even give me different tracks by the same artists. Sure, I enjoy “No Rest for the Wicked” by Lykke Li. I mean, that’s why I gave it a thumbs up. But I don’t need it on a constant rotation. It’s not even my favorite song off that album!

I think this may actually be a bug. Or maybe Rdio’s stations are so shoddy right now because it is transitioning to a different algorithm, after Spotify bought The Echo Nest, which formerly powered Rdio’s music discovery engine. In any case, this doesn’t affect me too much, because I would only use my phone for music if I were away from my computer (e.g. when I’m on the road or when I’m working out), in which case I usually prefer to listen to podcasts or talk radio anyway. (The new NPR One app, by the way, gets a thumbs up from me after a solid week of use.) Meanwhile, when I’m on the computer using the web version of Rdio, I always know what I want to listen to. So I have little need of the stations.

Going back to the social networking aspects, I will say that one unique feature that Rdio offers is the ability to play other users’ personal stations, which includes stations molded by the actual listening habits of those artists mentioned previously as having legitimate Rdio accounts. I haven’t really tried this much myself, because, again, I’m not all that interested in what other users are listening to. But I suppose it could potentially be a fun and social way to discover music.

So, after all that, how is it that Rdio has managed to win me over? Well, as I said from the outset, there’s not a whole lot to practically differentiate Rdio and Spotify, which means it all comes down to the little things.

I find Rdio’s web player to be faster-loading, its white color scheme much less oppressive than Spotify’s black, and its overall design much slicker and more streamlined. Ditto for the mobile apps, although the mobile experience is quite limited in either case, unless you pay for a subscription. But, ultimately, my preference for Rdio has less to do with its own virtues than with my frustrations with Spotify.

A recent major update to Spotify effectively retired its long-established “star” system. Before, if you liked a track, you could click the star button, which would add it to your “Starred” playlist, which, for a lot of users, was functionally their “collection” or “library.” Now, the star button has been replaced by a plus button, which, when clicked, becomes a check mark, which, when clicked again, becomes an X. This is already confusing and unintuitive, especially as the change initially arrived without any helpful tutorial to explain what all these newfangled symbols meant precisely. Moreover, what became of all those tracks users had previously starred? Well, they’re still part of the “Starred” playlist, and users are free to continue to add new songs to that playlist. But there’s no longer an easy one-click button dedicated to this purpose. The “Starred” playlist is now just like any regular playlist, and you have to dig into the menus to add songs to it. Instead of starring tracks you like, Spotify now prefers that you add them to your collection by clicking the plus button.

As someone who has never bothered curating playlists, and just wants one unified library of all the songs I’ve ever liked, I found that Spotify’s new system served only to introduce needless fragmentation and redundancy. I had my old list of starred songs, which Spotify moved around and made harder to find, and now I was also adding new songs via the plus button to my collection, which had previously been empty (because it used to be easier to star tracks than to add them—the reverse of how things are now). I haven’t even discussed Spotify’s radio stations yet. When you give the thumbs up to a track on a station, Spotify will automatically add that song, not to your collection, but to your “Liked from Radio” playlist, creating yet another layer of redundancy.

At least the stations themselves are much better, in my experience, on Spotify than on Rdio—not so repetitive, and occasionally able to introduce me to new music. In fact, for the price (i.e. free), Spotify might offer the most robust experience on mobile, because, besides just playing music by "similar" artists, it allows non-subscribers to shuffle only a specified artist's discography. So, even if you can't pick a specific song to play on demand on mobile, you can still be assured of hearing a bunch of other songs by that same artist, and probably eventually that one song too, after a bit of shuffling. You can even shuffle your own playlists, if music discovery's not really your thing, and you just want to hear your jams on your phone. Again, I don't really use my phone for music, so none of this means anything to me.

I never even really listened to my “Starred” playlist on shuffle (or otherwise). But, at the end of the day, Spotify's inscrutable trend from already cumbersome to downright arcane is aggravating on principle. And so I've had it with Spotify.

Also, Rdio has Chromecast support.

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