by Kevin Nguyen
Last month, the streaming music service Rdio filed for bankruptcy and announced that its assets were being purchased by Pandora. Today, it’s shutting down, which means that after half a decade, I have to find a new way to listen to music. According to Rdio’s final farewell, I’ve clocked over five thousand hours of listening time (most of which was fittingly spent on Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing”). A meager set of export tools allowed me to download the dozens of playlists I’ve created over the past half decade; in 2015, you can spend two hundred days of your life doing something and have just a handful of messy CSVs to show for it.
If Rdio had a moment, it was in 2010, when it launched. It was the first mobile-centric streaming service — ahead of Spotify by months. And, even after Spotify landed on U.S. shores, it was clear that Rdio’s product — aesthetically and functionally — was far better. Early adopter excitement dies out fast, though. Rdio was unabashedly the streaming service built for pretentious people, the music subscription for the intersection of people interested in nicely designed apps and Pitchfork. The bland language of UX — “clean” and “minimalist” — was ascribed to every mention of Rdio, which also maintained a traditional focus on albums, rather than songs and playlists. Even the company’s former design lead, Wilson Miner, admits that the service was made for “snobby album purists.”
After the shutdown was announced, there was a small outpouring among the community of terrible people who’d used Rdio from the beginning — like me. For years, I evangelized Rdio as the best of all the streaming music platforms, long after that was no longer true. These conversations often started by explaining, actually, it’s pronounced AR-dee-oh. Yet when people would ask me what made Rdio better than Spotify, I never really had a good answer. “It’s clean and… minimalist…” I’d say, as if I were describing a fancy bathroom.
Recently, a friend who is close with some of Rdio’s founders told me that the service was designed to be a social music app. In the five years that I used Rdio, this never occurred to me. Rdio has never boasted more than the most basic social features — a Twitter-like, one-way follow structure, some small hints about what your friends had listened to. But really, Rdio never felt social because not that many people ever used it: At its peak, it was rumored to have just shy of a hundred thousand paying users, well below Spotify’s twenty million.
But Rdio was the most social music service in as far as it was the most exclusive; you joined Rdio instead of Spotify because you wanted to be among a certain kind of music listener. And like almost all exclusive things, it tended to be a boys’ club. Whether or not it’s reflective of the service’s larger demographics, Rdio’s biggest fans tend to be loud men on Twitter. The only people I ever see defend Rdio are the kinds of men who love graphic-designer-turned-downtempo-artist Tycho, who lament the decline of Apple design since Steve Jobs died, and who brag about using Slack for fun. (Again, me).
There is nothing necessarily male-centric about Rdio’s design, nor do I think it was meant to appeal strictly to men. But as with many communities built around some notions of exclusivity, Rdio was most attractive to a group of people who have historically never been excluded. As the streaming music business became more competitive, this would be Rdio’s biggest failing — exclusivity even pervaded the company’s business decisions. The company focused on curation and library management tools, as if its platonic ideal of a user remained a person who used Rdio as if they were sorting their vinyl collection. And for a long time, Rdio only offered a paid subscription, while Spotify flourished by offering a limited free subscription that was subsidized by advertising.
Even after Rdio introduced a free plan, it failed to differentiate itself. The company attempted to course correct, badly: Later product features the company introduced focused on discovery through personalized radio stations, poorly mimicking long-running features that Pandora and iHeartRadio were already leaps and bounds ahead on. The company struck an ill-fated deal with Cumulus for ad-supported radio in exchange for equity in Rdio which, two years later, turned into a $19 million write down. Each subsequent redesign that refocused the service on “stations” failed to appeal to existing users or attract new ones — perhaps what you’d expect from a company named after a vowel-deficient deliberate misspelling of “radio.”
When Condé Nast acquired Pitchfork this fall, Fred Santarpia, the company’s chief digital officer, said the acquisition brought “a very passionate roster of millennial males into our roster.” The quote drew an appropriate amount of ire from readers and music writers, who found it to be an offensively exclusionary way to describe Pitchfork’s readership. While Santarpia isn’t necessarily wrong — QuantCast pegs Pitchfork’s readership at eighty-two percent male, over half of whom are between eighteen and thirty-four years old — he is definitely out of touch. It seems short-sighted (and tone-deaf) to think only of the audience you already have, rather than building something for the bigger one that you could have. If Condé Nast worked to raise Pitchfork readership to half women, its audience would grow by sixty percent. In a roundup of responses of Pitchfork’s female contributors, Sara Sherr asked, “Even if this guy was talking business demographics, why aren’t women seen as a viable market in 2015? And why doesn’t he realize that this could alienate potential readers and advertisers?”
After I downloaded all my Rdio playlists, I uploaded them into a fresh Spotify account. Using the desktop app’s follow feature, I discovered that six hundred and eighty-six friends had Spotify accounts — thirteen times the number of people I knew on Rdio. Every December since I’d been on Rdio, I had a ritual where I’d make a playlist of my favorite songs of the year. No one ever really listened to them. This year, I know enough people that somebody might.
I’ll miss Rdio as much as someone can reasonably miss an app. But I’ll take comfort that in saying goodbye to Rdio, I’m also leaving behind the idea that music discovery is something made exclusively for dudes.
Photo by dennis brekke
Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.