Chris Dzombak

How Rdio Can Kill Spotify (and vice-versa)

A couple cool new subscription music services have recently appeared: Rdio and Spotify. There are a ton of similarities between the two – they offer instant access to a world of music, they have capable mobile apps, and they share a nearly-identical pricing structure.

There are several notable differences between them, though. I've been trying for weeks to figure out which one I want to use primarily (in fact, I'm currently paying for subscriptions to both). This is maddening because each has little shortcomings when compared to the other. If I could just combine the best of both, I'd have an absolutely killer subscription music service. But I can't.

A few days ago, I was really thinking hard and posted a series of Tweets about this. Here's a more in-depth comparison between the two. There's no conclusion about which is better – because neither is. I maintain that if either service did what I outline here, it would kill the other. It would certainly get my exclusive business.

How Rdio could kill Spotify

Rdio is newer than Spotify; it was launched in mid-2010. It's a US company (while Spotify is based in Europe and has been there for a number of years, Spotify only launched in the US in July 2011). It has subscription plans for $4.99 or $9.99 a month, and it offers a 7-day trial.

I started using Rdio in spring 2011 when Spotify wasn't yet available in the US. I really, really want to like Rdio – it's a newer, smaller, more accessible company; I've had good interactions with them on Twitter and via more traditional support channels. And I think (or hope) that Rdio's newness and smallness means they're more agile, more open to changes in their product, and more able to make those changes quickly. They've already incorporated one of my suggestions into their native apps.

But some rough edges and missing features have found me using Spotify more and more lately, and I'm considering downgrading my Rdio subscription next month. I'm really hoping Rdio listens to at least some of my suggestions.

Better Native App

Spotify's native desktop app experience kills Rdio's. It's an all-around better user experience.

Rdio's is a webapp in a separate browser window with a few specialized buttons. Spotify's is an actual native application. That means Rdio's native app feels clunky, slow, and unresponsive in comparison to Spotify's – I was pretty happy with Rdio's native app on OS X and Windows, until I started using Spotify. If Rdio's going to compete, it needs a better native app experience – one that feels faster than a webapp.

Spotify does a lot of clever, aggressive caching to ensure that when you hit "play", the music stream starts instantly. Seeking through an album on Spotify doesn't mean listening to seconds of silence between each song. On Rdio, in comparison, I have to wait a while until music actually starts playing.

Finally, Spotify's native apps integrate the user's own music seamlessly into the library. This isn't necessarily a must-have killer feature, but it's certainly nice to be able to include in my playlists local artists who aren't on Spotify. And the mobile Spotify app includes MP3s I've already put on my phone. This feature just adds to the list of reasons Spotify's native app experience is better.

I should note that Rdio has a very nice webapp – in fact, it launched as one. This is cool because I can visit it from any computer, anywhere, and have my music ready to go. Spotify doesn't have a webapp.

Improve Playlist Management

Rdio's playlist management sucks. I've barely used it because it's just painful.

Go build a cool playlist on Rdio. Then build the same playlist on Spotify. Spotify wins, hands down.

Don't Duplicate my Social Graph

Rdio should improve its integration with my already-extant social graphs on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. Rdio already has great social features, but there's little point in duplicating my social graph when it's already well-documented elsewhere on the Web.

At least, Rdio's already-capable friend finder should be more prominent so that more people will set it up with their online accounts, and then every month it should tell you, "Hey! We found 16 of your Facebook friends who also use Rdio!"

Remove the Pricing/Trial Barrier

This last suggestion doesn't really affect existing users, but it will be crucial to let Rdio remain competitive with Spotify. Spotify offers a free, ad-supported, feature-limited plan. Rdio offers a 7-day free trial, after which your only options are $5 or $10 a month.

I believe Rdio should either offer a longer free trial or a free plan (ad-supported, feature-limited, and/or playback-time-limited). A 7-day trial just is not long enough for someone to really get to know your product, utilize its features, and explore how it best fits into his daily routines and workflow. To convince someone that your service is a good fit for his life, you need more than a single week.

A lot of people are happily using Spotify's free, ad-supported plan. These people will never even try Rdio. And even more importantly, these people tend to be younger users in the 13-21 year old range. Capturing these users is crucial for your service. Their opinions on how music should work are shaped by illegal file sharing, but they are also young and flexible and open to change. If you get them on the subscription-service bandwagon now, with a free account, they won't just look at this as an alternative to buying CDs like older demographics will (many of them have never bought a CD in their lives and have only ever swapped MP3s). They will see this as the legal way to get music, and they will be your customers for years to come. Spotify is capturing them; Rdio isn't.

How Spotify could kill Rdio

Spotify has been popular in Europe for a couple years and only recently launched in the US. It's become pretty popular in the US. Its pricing model is basically identical to Rdio's ($4.99 or $9.99 per month), with the addition of an ad-supported free plan. Spotify is available exclusively as a native app; there is no webapp like Rdio's.

I've been using Spotify a lot since it launched, and I generally like it. But there are a few things that Rdio does much better.

Better Library/Collection System

I hate the way I have to collect music in Spotify. The only way to add music to my library is by adding it to a playlist or "starring" it. You can't just put music in your library like you can in Rdio. I can sort of see why Spotify is designed like this, but it's painful to use unless you're used to collecting and organizing music using exclusively playlists. And nobody does that.

I want to be able to add music to my library without adding it to a playlist. I should be able to find and collect music without thinking about whether to add certain tracks to playlists x, y, and/or z. Then I want to browse through that music.

(As a side note, it's not clear exactly what starring a track is supposed to do. I assume I'm supposed to star my favorite tracks, but I don't actually know.)

Add Usable Social Features

I love how Rdio lets me see what music is popular overall in my social network and what my friends are listening to. I've discovered a lot of music that way. Spotify doesn't let me do that. If I'm curious, in Spotify, I can see what one user's top tracks and artists are, and I have to go out of my way to see even that. Rdio is a much, much more social experience – so much so that you can be social without even thinking about it. This is how people discover music. Spotify fails at helping me discover music.

If Spotify wants to compete with Rdio, it will basically need to copy Rdio's social features, because Rdio's social features are perfect.

(Before arguing that Spotify's social features are good, you should go find some people on Rdio for a week and use it. You'll hate Spotify.)

Better Music Discovery with Radio Stations

Rdio lets me listen to a "radio station" built upon virtually any list of music: music that's popular in my social network, an artist's page, etc. It's amazing. This makes discovering music a pleasure. Spotify has no such thing. Discovering music on Spotify is next to impossible.

Spotify has to improve its artist radio feature, and add a radio station based on what's popular in my social network. It should go even further and let me listen to a radio station built upon any list of music (or user's page) that's displayed, anywhere. Or at the very least, it should let me create a new playlist filled with recommendations.

Improve Music Finding on Mobile App

Spotify's mobile app will not let you listen to an album by selecting an artist/album from an alphabetical list. Instead, you must open a playlist that you already know contains the album, then type in the album's name to filter the list. WTF, right?

At some level, this design makes sense. This is how you select music in the Spotify desktop app (and in iTunes, from which Spotify's interface copies). But on a mobile device, typing is hard, and this design sucks.

This makes sense when considering Spotify's overall playlist-centric design. If you collect and organize music using exclusively playlists, this won't matter. But nobody does that – everyone sometimes wants to find and listen to a whole album.

Spotify's mobile app should have more traditional artist/album lists for finding music in addition to the type-to-filter functionality. Rdio's mobile app gets this right.

With a Cherry on Top

There are a few things that neither of these services do, but which could be huge competitive advantages.

Free Accounts for College Students

This sounds crazy. Hear me out:

Amazon gives away free one-year Prime memberships to college students. Why? It works really, really well.

Giving away one-year music subscriptions to college students will work better than giving away Amazon Prime memberships.

Integrate with Google Music

Integrating the music that's already on my computer into your app is nice, but in the future the music I own won't be stored on my computer. It certainly won't be stored in duplicate on my computers, tablet, phone, and car.

If your native apps (for desktops/laptops and phones) integrate local music the user already owns, they should also integrate cloud-stored music the user already owns.

Last.fm Love Button

This is a small one, but I always like my music players to have a Last.fm "love this track" button :)

Footnote: Pandora

Pandora is dead.

Rdio's "radio" feature, which lets you discover music based on an artist or on what your social network is listening to, kills Pandora. Once Rdio has a free, ad-supported plan, there will be no reason for anybody to use Pandora. As a bonus, Rdio lets you listen to a specific track if you want, which Pandora has never been able to do.

Rdio's UI is far superior to Pandora's Y2K-esque Flash-based monstrosity. Pandora's recent announcement that they're developing a nice HTML5-based player is too late; they sat for years while literally doing nothing, and they're going to pay a steep price for that.

Pandora has no usable social fatures; Rdio has some really, really nice ones.

And as soon as Spotify gets a clue and adds usable radio features, it will have all the same advantages as Rdio (vs Pandora).

Footnote: Last.fm Radio

Nobody really uses Last.fm's radio; it's been dead for a long time. Pandora has better recommendations and plays a better cross-section of music, and the Last.fm radio UI is clunky.

I've been bitterly disappointed with Last.fm in general; it will be the subject of another post in the near future. There's so much potential there and the Last.fm team is literally doing nothing with it.

Conclusion

There's no winner in the Spotify vs. Rdio battle. At least, not yet. I want to like Rdio, but I've found myself using Spotify more and more lately – I'm really hoping Rdio reads this post.

Here's a comparison of Rdio's and Spotify's iPhone apps.

Finally, no matter what happens, it will be fun to look back at this post in a couple years.

Comments are welcome.