The unofficial leaders of the streaming-music market, Rdio and Spotify, are both awfully good services. But neither is close to perfect, which led me to wonder just how you'd create the ultimate online music service.
The answer isn't hard: Just merge Spotify and Rdio. Alternatively, the two sites should just copiously steal features from one another. Or someone could found a new service that blends the best of both. Whatever. I want the best of both, and I want it now.
Allow me to explain. Almost two years ago, when Spotify finally launched in the U.S., I signed up. Within 48 hours, I had canceled my Rdio subscription and agreed to pay Spotify $10 per month to access its service on my phone, ad-free.
But for the last few weeks, I've had the luxury of using a premium Rdio demo account, and I've gotta say: It's sometimes tempting to switch back. As impressive as Spotify is, Rdio is much, much better designed. On the other hand, Spotify has a few excellent features Rdio lacks. (Both sites offer approximately the same amount of music, which is often available via high-quality 320 kbps streams.)
Frankly, I'm torn. But I'd rather not have to choose at all. I suspect many other music fans — whether they know it or not — feel the same way.
What Rdio Gets Right: Design and Music Management
When it comes to design, Rdio wins, hands down. Spotify's apps aren't terrible, but Rdio sports what feels like a cleaner, more minimalist design. The blue and white color scheme is more refreshing and it feels like the company put some thought into typography.
More importantly, Rdio organizes your music much, much better than Spotify does. It has long blown my mind that Spotify refuses to display your music library in a way that's at all analogous to how you'd organize music in real life. There's no collection. There is no "Albums" tab. It's just playlists, starred tracks and search. If I find a new album I want to routinely listen to, I have to star the whole thing or add it as a playlist. It's bizarre.
By contrast, Rdio lets me easily add albums to what is intuitively labeled my "Collection," which is organized by artist. To anybody who's ever used an iPod, scrolling through a list of artists is an familiar, almost expected interface. Spotify users, for whatever reason, don't have this simple luxury.
Rdio's built-in music discovery is also superior. The "Heavy Rotation" tab recommends music to me based on what I listen to and who I follow on Rdio. Depending on those two details (especially who one chooses to follow), the suggestions can actually be pretty spot-on. I don't know what powers the "Recommended Albums" carousel in Spotify's "What's New" tab, but the fact that it thinks I'd enjoy Kelly Clarkson's new album suggests it's not paying very much attention.
What Spotify Gets Right: Add-On Apps & Infinite Music
What Spotify lacks in native recommendation features it makes up for via third party add-ons available through its built-in app platform. Spotify might not be aware of what I actually like, but Last.fm is — and its Spotify app is a mere click away. If I want music to match my mood, there's MoodAgent, which builds playlists based on things like tempo and the emotional qualities of a given song.
For less robotic, more human-curated recommendations, there are apps like Hype Machine and Shuffler.fm, both of which corral the best new stuff from influential music blogs, broken down by genre. Then there are good, old-fashioned hand-picked recommendations from individual critics via the Rolling Stone, Guardian, Pitchfork or NME apps.
Spotify's third party app platform is by far its most promising feature, aside from the music itself. Realizing that it can't build the end-all, be-all music service for every listener, Spotify has smartly opened up its platform to developers, who can use HTML5 and related Web technologies to build applications that plug into Spotify's vast music library.
These add-ons have yet to find their way into Spotify's mobile apps, but they continue to push the desktop experience forward in a way that makes it hard to break the Spotify habit.
And Another Spotify Win: Imports
The other chief advantage Spotify offers — and that Rdio and others should just steal outright — is the ability to import your own MP3 collection into the service. This is a huge perk.
No matter how many licensing deals these companies strike, their music libraries are never going to include everything. There will always be big-name holdouts like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, not to mention a score of smaller, independent artists who either haven't done the leg work to get their music onto streaming services or simply don't want to.
Allowing users to effectively merge their personal music collections with Spotify's music library makes for an experience that feels more comprehensive and focused. As more of our music consumption moves online, the listening experience inevitably becomes fractured across sites and apps. We might not be able to avoid this entirely, but Spotify's integrated approach makes it easier to at least minimize the problem.
There are, as always, technical limitations to implementing this feature. Since Spotify primarily exists as a desktop app, it can easily scan your hard drive for music tracks and index them, iTunes-style. The alternative would be to allow users to upload their tracks directly to the service, a la Google Music and the Amazon Cloud Player.
Waiting for thousands of songs to upload doesn't present the most compelling user experience, but it is one possible technical solution. For the most part, Spotify's local indexing approach works pretty well.
Rdio has desktop apps, but they're more or less a clone of its Web interface without much extra functionality tacked on. If Rdio were to include the ability to import and manage music, I'd be that much closer to ditching Spotify. The desktop app is also a crucial component to syncing local MP3s to users' phones and tablets, another feature unique to Spotify in the U.S. (Deezer does this, too).
Toward The Ultimate Streaming Service
Music is a pretty personal thing. If these companies want us to shift our listening habits into their respective clouds, they need to be particularly sensitive to what works for users. I've presented one framework here. Perhaps you have your own ideas, which I encourage you to leave in the comments. A flawlessly-designed, super-comprehensive, extensible and flexible music subscription service would be well worth the money.
It's a little frustrating, because Spotify and Rdio collectively have most of the pieces required to build the ultimate streaming service. It's almost as if the two could merge and we'd be set. It'd be unlikely, but if this new hybrid music dream service could steal a page from Tomahawk's playbook and integrate additional music sources like SoundCloud and YouTube, it'd be even better.
Whether or not Rdio, Spotify or any of its current direct competitors deliver this mythical dream service, somebody will. The music subscription space is going to heat up substantially this year, as Google and Amazon are both rumored to be entering this market. Meanwhile, MOG will be reborn as Daisy and Deezer is expected to launch in the U.S.
We already have a few very awesome, yet imperfect music subscription services. As the space gets more crowded, there exists a real opportunity to launch something truly, thoroughly compelling. Who will it be?Lead photo by Alexandre Normand