[I know this article is obscenely long, considering the content, and incredibly random, considering this blog. But I just needed a place to vent my thoughts. And don’t worry, Part 3 of my little biographical sketch will be up in the next couple of days. In the meantime, you can catch up: Part 1, Part 2]
I recently purchased the “GOgroove FlexSMART X2 ADVANCED Wireless In-Car Bluetooth FM Transmitter with Charging and Hands-Free Capability” (yes, that’s its full name) and it has changed how I listen to music. It’s incredible and works just as advertised. It is able to take audio transmitted via Bluetooth wireless technology and then broadcast it over the radio in your car. So, long story short, it makes it possible to listen to music streaming onto your phone while driving. The most immediate benefit I’ve found for this is that I can now listen to Pandora while driving.
Of course, Pandora is the much-loved music discovery service where you make “stations” based on artists or individual tracks you like and it delivers songs that it thinks you would also enjoy. (You can view my Pandora profile here.) It has a really high success rate for nailing the sound you’re looking for. You’re then able to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to each song that plays, and it will use this to refine its offerings to you.
The two issues that plague it though are that it has a very low-limit on how many songs you can skip in a row and (more recently) there is a 40-hour a month limit for free users. For $36 a year, though, you can upgrade to “Pandora One”, which gives you ad-free access to higher quality-sounding music, a desktop application, unlimited listening, and “more” skips (whatever that means).
For $3 a month, this appears to be a good deal; which is why I have been planning on purchasing a Pandora One upgrade here shortly. I imagine I’ll be listening to a lot more Pandora if I can listen to it now on the road. It is a great service, and almost all of the artists I have fallen in love with in the past 6 months or so I have discovered by way of Pandora.
But then I found Rdio. Rdio is from the founders of Skype and is a relatively new player in the online music space. (You can view my Rdio profile here.) Having secured deals with all the major record labels, it offers access to tons of music to stream on your computer or mobile device. The big selling point is this: you get absolutely unlimited and unhindered access to this music in nearly every way. You can skip songs, make playlists, share playlists, sync songs to your phone for offline access, and even scan your current iTunes library and add any songs from there into your online collection thereby enabling you to listen to most of your library on the road through Rdio on your phone.
There are a couple of catches, though. First (and the biggest hindrance to many), it will cost you some money. It’s $4.99 a month for unlimited access to just the web interface; mobile access will cost you $9.99 a month. This may scare some people away, but honestly, just two days into my four day free trial, I have already listened to several entire albums I have loved that I never would have heard of or spent any time on if it weren’t just freely sitting there for me to listen to on demand (my two favorites have been Jay-Z’s MTV Unplugged and Gnarl’s Barkley’s The Odd Couple).
Another problem I have is that the site doesn’t have many obscure or indie artists. Out of the 22,000+ tracks I have in my iTunes library, Rdio only had about 8,000+ of those songs in their library that they could add to my online collection.
But those issues are understandable and will get better over time, probably. But there’s one issue, however, that is really frustrating me. Unless you have a large number of friends on Rdio (which I don’t) or can reliably find people/entities to “follow” that have good taste in music (which I can’t seem to), then this service sucks for music discovery. Last night I tried playing the radio station they have based on the amazing Boston band The Weepies. It was one of the worst music experiences I’ve had. Alongside this relaxed guy/girl singer-songwriter group, they played ambient techno pieces with light female vocals and hard-rock Tori Amos tracks. Really? Yes.
If you know precisely what you’re looking for, Rdio is so wonderful. If not, you’re out of luck, it seems. Sure, you can head over to the “Heavy Rotation” section to see what’s popular, but this list more or less mirrors the pop charts in the country. You can’t rate songs, so if you play a song at all–even five seconds of it–and hate it, it will still offer you “Recommendations” based on even this most briefest and unpleasant of encounters. There’s not even a “Genre” function by which to browse music.
Rdio’s answer to this lack of music discovery tools is that your friends and those you choose to “follow” are better judges of your tastes than an algorithm. Personally, Pandora’s algorithms have been pretty freaking good to me, though I get their point. But, the problem with this is that without a free option (however limited), there is no way enough of my friends (real or virtual) will be contributing to the community of this site enough to effectively influence my listening habits. I have well over 1,000 friends on facebook and I follow over 350 people on Twitter. Among all those options, there were TWO people that were also on Rdio that I could follow. No one else (and I don’t even really know those two).
My suggestion to Rdio would be this: The ideal (for me, at least) would be some sort of way to link your Rdio and Pandora web apps (the way that Rdio already does with Last.fm), so that your listening habits and “likes” on both sites will be in sync and consistent. I would certainly pay for that. But this is unlikely. At the very least, they could offer a way to rate what you listen to, and then judge their recommendations on that. In short, give me a personalized experience; don’t treat me and my tastes as just one more ear in the crowd.
Most people feel paralyzed in the midst of so many options, unable to make a decision. We need guidance. And Pandora offers it. Rdio doesn’t, but it has a huge amount of freedom that Pandora lacks. So now I don’t know what to pay for. If I have access to a near-limitless supply of music on Rdio, then I surely don’t need more than 40 hours of free Pandora a month. But, if I just spend my time listening to music I know and already own on Rdio, if it worth nearly $120 a year (compared to Pandora’s $36)?
All these options are leaving me paralyzed. And I need help. I’m leaning towards Rdio. That is, at least until Europe’s amazing, mind-blowing, earth-shattering music service Spotify finally comes to the States, which rumor has it will start up in the next couple of months anyway.
[photo by Michael D. Dunn on flickr]