Music sharing online should be personal — a reflection of the best forms of analog music sharing in the tradition of a record store clerk or mixtape. Spotify has gone after that dynamic with its required Facebook connect and its social sharing functions.
Now, with a major redesign launched today, Rdio is going personal too.
Rdio’s VP of Product Malthe Sigurdsson kicked off the launch event at SXSW with a few thinly veiled digs on his music streaming competitors. A certain somebody’s algorithmic song recommendation engine isn’t human enough (Pandora). “We don’t think machines can (recommend music based on taste) alone,” he said. “No matter how good they get, they still don’t have taste.”
Meanwhile, a certain somebody’s playlist and search-driven method of discovery isn’t effective. “Music discovery can’t be staring down the barrel of a search engine,” he said.
And lastly, the spreadsheet look of iTunes is just crappy. Rdio’s redesign places the focus on the albums and their artwork, making the experience of choosing music more like thumbing through a box of records. (Yes, iTunes has that option, but it’s slow to load and album artwork often isn’t available.)
Thus, new Rdio. The company realized, as it began to respond to feedback from users, that addressing most of them required a complete start from scratch, so the subscription music streaming service completely overhauled its look and functionality. It still has 15 million songs, it still costs $4.99 a month for unlimited streaming, and it still has the free function that the company rolled out in October. It still has no ads and no intention of adding ads. The free option provides a limited amount of music based on a meter. I haven’t used the free version, and Rdio doesn’t specify how it determines when the meter, which resets each month, tops out.
The redesign looks a lot like Spotify, only white, clean, and in a browser. For those of us who don’t often think to type in Rdio.com without a reminder from an icon in our dock, a desktop client is available. There’s a social bar on the right side serving up your friends’ listening activity, but with the option to only follow friends of your choosing. You can also follow Twitter connections and bands, magazines and popular users. A left side column, similar to iTunes or Spotify, contains playlists, recent activity, top charts, etc.
The big difference is that in the center, instead of the list of songs you’d see on iTunes or the random bunch of content with recommendations and apps on Spotify, new Rdio features a really nice looking gallery of album artwork. It populates the gallery based on what the people you follow listen to, as well as your own listening habits. The best part is that below each album cover, you can see which of your friends or followed brands have listened to a song.
The service’s new social features require a bit of a network to be useful, and unfortunately Rdio still won’t release subscriber figures. It’s smaller than Spotify but probably larger than MOG. Only ten of my Facebook friends were on Rdio; only around half of them were active. That’s how Spotify was at first too, but it was a brand new service in the US. I hope new Rdio gets enough traction to make its social functions useful, because they are, at first look, better than Spotify’s. Even with Spotify’s “favorite friends” function, I don’t like seeing all of my friends’ terrible music choices. I also don’t like seeing an update that Friend X has listened to every song on an album pop up as a new story with each track.
The good news is that until a critical mass of users sign up, I can still get recommendations from the brands I follow, like Sub Pop Records or Vice.
For now, new Rdio is only available to paid users; in the coming weeks it’ll open up to free users too. I prefer the look and feel over Spotify’s, but it’s got a ways to go in convincing Spotify’s massive base of free users and smaller base of paid ones to make the switch. That’s especially true as Spotify continues to address users’ biggest complaint — discovery — with new apps. And even if new Rdio is prettier, I’ve yet to hear someone complain about Spotify’s design.