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A Rquiem For Rdio

Found on r/AppleMusic this fantastic article by Bryan Clark about Rdio, the defunct music streaming pioneer. There are several interesting details about the Rdio service but perhaps the most revealing for me was discovering that this music service took “queuing” seriously almost a decade ago:

Rdio’s playback queue was vastly superior to Spotify’s. It was a wonderful companion to Discovery, it synced across devices, and was simple to use.

One core component of a music service’s design: what do you do when you’ve just found an album, you want to check it out, but aren’t ready to add it to your Favorites? With Rdio, you’d just put it in The Queue. My workflow for finding music was something like this: go through the Discover sections, queue up a bunch of albums, and then know that over the next few days, I’d work through them all. If I liked something, it’d go in my collection. If not, I’d just skip the album and go onto something else.

You might be saying to yourself, “Spotify and Apple Music have queues, too!” No, not like this they didn’t! See, Rdio’s queue synced, which meant that I could queue up a bunch of tunes on my Mac, then hop in the car and hear them on my phone. Meanwhile, when I make a queue on Spotify, if the app crashes or I change devices, my queue is gone.

Also, let’s talk about Spotify’s queue model, because its design is really aggravating: […]

Maybe there is a reason why no other streamer tried to “solve” queue since then*. As The Verge’s post-mortem recalls: 

Looking back, some former employees say Rdio sometimes focused on the wrong things. It invested many product cycles in refining its queue — a place to collect things you want to listen to later. Every other music streaming service offers a queue that’s a simple list of tracks. But if you dragged an album or a playlist into Rdio’s queue, Rdio would recognize it as a distinct object, so you could drag and drop an album above a track, or a full playlist below an album. “At the end of the day, that was not a major differentiating factor,” says Wilson Miner, who led design at Rdio from its launch until May 2012. “If we hadn’t had something like that, nobody would have noticed and it would have been fine. I still wish we could have solved it, but it was more of a personal quest than a brutally honest assessment of priorities.”

More from the same article:

The economics of streaming music are brutal. Record labels have nearly all the leverage, and take most of the gross revenue from streaming services. The only way to win is to achieve a massive scale — which is why Spotify has raised more than $1 billion, spending heavily to add subscribers in hopes they will lead to a sustainable business.

Rdio realized this only belatedly. “Rdio, I guess, made the mistake of trying to be sustainable too early,” Miner says. “That classic startup mistake of worrying about being profitable and having a business that makes any sense before you’ve reached this astronomical growth curve. Which is partly the trap of the business model itself — because of the content licensing deals, the margins for the business were so incredibly thin. No matter what we did, the labels made the lion’s share of the revenue. You have to make it up with extreme volume, which is why you see Spotify going after every human being in the world.”

Finally:

Ultimately, it is not a game Rdio was ever built to win. The people who made it focused to a fault on making something beautiful, something that celebrated the music they love. Sigurdsson “wanted to build a music service that was social at its core but was also beautiful,” Becherer says. “There was a real focus on that.” Mary van Ogtrop, a copywriter for Rdio, says there will be no replacing the service’s attention to detail. “Rdio taught me to slow down, let it marinate, and make my final decision the right one,” she says.

By the way, reading the original article, one can notice that other Rdio ideas have been implemented on current services (autoplay, albums friends are listening, home view apparently recalls current Spotify shortcuts etc.). Not a surprise, since Rdio’s demise happened almost five years ago. Unfortunately nobody yet has cared to recreate a robust, synchronised and constant queue.

Still, recalling the story of Rdio (which I had completely forgotten) is satisfying in a way similar to solving an evolutionary puzzle: “why there is no streaming service with a historical commitment to attention to detail?” The existing streaming services have had distinct trajectories and priorities, but clearly none emphasises this particular commitment:

  • Spotify has had its own design priorities and has been successful that way.
  • Apple Music started from the Beats streaming service (which started from the Mog service) and had a joint interface with iTunes until recently. A change in management apparently has improved things in the past two years too.
  • Tidal, Deezer are smaller concerns, with long stories and lots of up and downs.
  • Qobuz, Idagio are valiant, even smaller players.
  • Youtube Music and Amazon Prime Music are works in progress for both internet giants.
  • Microsoft Music (Zune, Xbox, Groove) is no more.
  • (Pandora, whatever its merits is a US only service)

Well, apparently Rdio was different, and it lasted for a while.

 * Deezer does synchronise queues, but they stop working in “Flow” and are erased when a mix is started, so you have to rebuild them all the time.

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