Spotify & Rdio: double-headed revolution or double-edged sword?

by Denis Semchenko

As music consumers, we live in an era where digital format is king, superstore chains like HMV are history and the previously-omnipresent CDs are fast becoming an obsolete medium. These days, we buy music on iTunes (although scores of us take advantage of the current resurgence of vinyl) and Amazon or pay to stream it on websites like, Grooveshark, Zune and JB Hi-Fi NOW. On top of the above, this year has seen the emergence of two new services that are changing the way we listen to music yet again.

Launched in Australia in January, Rdio – created by Skype founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis (also the brains behind Kazaa) – is an ad-free music subscription service. Essentially the aural equivalent of “all you can eat”, the Web version costs $8.90 a month to subscribe, while the Unlimited option ($12.90/mth) lets you stream music from your phone – perfect for when you’re driving or on public transport.

Available online, on iPad, iPod Touch and assorted smartphones, Rdio’s neatly-designed interface is an instant winner. You can jumpstart your Rdio collection by syncing your iTunes library in one simple step, share music with your friends and copy their albums into your collection – all of which literally takes one or two mouse clicks. Yet just as one was about to utter “what’s there not to like?”, it turns out that the no-less impressive competitor was lurking around the corner.

First launched in 2010, the Sweden-based free music service Spotify took nearly two years to arrive in Australia, but the day it officially landed Down Under – Tuesday 22 May 2012 – marks the next step of music consumption in the southern hemisphere. Presently, you can only get a Spotify account if you’re on Facebook (cue criticism from Twitter devotees), but the 16 million-plus tracks and tons of pre-loaded playlists to choose from make it less of an issue.

After installing the app on your electronic device of choice, you either can listen to music for free, but with advertising and at 160kbps, or get the ad-free version for $6.99 a month. You get the full array of features if you go for the Premium option – where you can stream songs at 320kbps from both your computer and mobile phone and play them in offline mode for an extra $5.

Marginally reminiscent of iTunes layout-wise, the well-integrated app automatically imports music stored on your hard drive and ‘scrobbles’ listens to your account (if you’ve got one). Like on Rdio, you can see what your friends are listening to and start your own “station” by simply typing in an artist and hitting enter.

Both engines’ most appealing features are the vast choice of music on offer, incredible ease of use and overall convenience – you often feel like a kid in a proverbial candy shop. But while Rdio and Spotify appear to be an instant hit with the internet-savvy, smartphone-friendly users, there have already been voices of disapproval from the more traditional-minded folk and artists themselves.

From an independent artist standpoint, one cannot expect to make a killing from having their music played on Spotify (at this stage, the per stream rate is $0.001), while Rdio simply do not disclose how much much they pay featured artists, citing record label agreements.

For an old-school music enthusiast, the search-engine aesthetic hardly carries the ‘personal’ aspect of browsing through a physical music collection and putting on a vinyl record or loading the CD in the tray. Likewise, staunch audiophiles largely baulk at the hardly-FLAC sonic resolution (set to save maximum bandwidth) on offer.

100% perfect and ideally suited for everyone they may not be, yet both Rdio and Spotify mark the shift from blindly buying music online or illegally downloading it from assorted torrent sites while giving the user the “try before you buy” option. Several years in the making, the change has come.

by Denis Semchenko

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