Rdio was a Spotify competitor, but unlike that service, it felt like it was built for people who liked digital music as digital music. Its metadata was often high quality. Like iTunes of yore, it organized its songs as much by album as by artist or genre. You could even sort and search songs by record label, something no other streaming service has implemented well. (Maybe that's why record labels seemed to enjoy it: For years, some unknown toiler at Smithsonian Folkways put out short, seasonal playlists that sampled from that company’s encyclopedic collection.)
Though it endured sometimes faddish redesigns, Rdio almost always made a straightforward kind of sense. It gleamed with a well-considered uncomplicatedness that I’ve come to recognize as the residue of good design. Despite one of the most formidable app-design challenges I can think of—how do you make manageable a library that includes a huge portion of humanity’s recorded music?—its iOS app never veered into the ridiculous, as Spotify’s still does, even now.*
At its best, Rdio had perhaps the kindest community in online music. People left comments on albums, and, lo and behold, the writing was good and interesting. Strangers constructed playlists that pulled from artists and albums you’d never heard of, but without the performative high/low-ness that afflicts so much online music talk. Through Rdio, I learned of Patrick Ewing’s “Warm Focus” playlists, which blend music from artists like Four Tet, J Dilla, Ulrich Schnauss, and others in a comfortably intuitive background soundtrack. (You can now listen to Ewing’s mix on his weekly online radio show, also called “Warm Focus.”)
For a time, Rdio even had Taylor Swift’s full back catalog.
So of course it could not last. Two weeks ago, I transitioned to Spotify by myself—Rdio was getting increasingly buggy and I’d heard too many amazed gasps coming from Discover Weekly’s direction. Spotify is a revelation: It feels like you’re discovering the radio station that all your friends have been listening to this whole time. It feels, actually, like the Top 40 radio people went and made a music app: It’s hyper-condensed and just a little too overproduced and always mid-commercial (even if you pay for premium) and yet—dammit—like a college acquaintance who got rich right after school, it’s somehow stayed hip.
Rdio, on the other hand, was cool. It went with sky-blue over neon green. It felt like Internet people made it. (Partly because they actually did: I used to read the blog of one of its designers when, early in his career, he worked for a small newspaper in Kansas.) I wonder how we’ll remember it.
Audiophiles in both my and my parent’s generation cherish records. Unlike any of the set-it-and-forget-it streaming services, they demand attention and adoration—for someone to kneel down, change the disc, and otherwise hearken to this Ring Cycle of musical media formats. Streaming, meanwhile, happens in the background, at work, in the library, even (with some precarious laptop-balancing) in the shower.