A new kind of online Rdio [UPDATED]
While Spotify struggles to bring its free music-on-demand service to the U.S., a growing number of companies are filling the gap -- although not on the same terms. For example, Guvera offers a limited number of free downloads on demand to those who'll tolerate some targeted advertising (and who don't mind a less than comprehensive selection of tracks). MOG and Napster offer unlimited on-demand streams for $5 a month. Rhapsody does the same for $10 a month, with the added bonus of mobile streaming to smartphones (MOG does the same for $10 too, and Napster's mobile version is on its way).
Another subscription service joined the fray Tuesday: Rdio, the latest creation from Kazaa and Skype founders Janus Friis with Niklas Zennström. Its offering is closest to MOG's -- both incorporate elements of social media to yield better music discovery and a more entertaining service. It also offers a $5-a-month web-only service and a $10-a-month mobile version. I've played with and enjoyed Rdio and MOG, although they have different strengths and weaknesses.
Both services allow you to search for tracks or artists, browse new releases (although only MOG makes this easy on a mobile device) and play an unlimited number of songs on demand for a flat fee. Rdio also enables you to virtualize the digital tracks you have on your PC -- the "match collection" function on the downloadable Rdio desktop player looks at your iTunes or Windows Media Player library and adds those titles to your collection in Rdio (just the titles, not the tracks themselves). That's a great feature in concept...
...but I didn't have any luck when I tried it on my work PC. My guess is that the software was stumped by the PC's small library of obscure MP3s (more on that later).
MOG doesn't try to replicate your collection; instead, it automatically catalogs the tracks in your library that you play most often and adds those titles to your online profile. That's a particularly useful feature for the mobile version of MOG, although for some reason the favorites in my online profile didn't find their way onto my smartphone. I'll take it on faith that the feature actually works for other MOG users.
The more compelling features of Rdio and MOG are the ones that let you follow in the footsteps of other users whose tastes you admire. Rdio aggregates onto a single page the activities of your network (i.e., the people you're following) -- the albums they've been playing most often, the records they've added to their Rdio collections, the people they've started following and the playlists they've created. All of these are jumping-off points for sampling and discovering new music.
You can also drill down deeper, going to any Rdio user's profile page to see and play what they've been listening to and read any reviews they've written. You can also collaborate with friends on joint playlists. Rdio helps you find people to follow by making recommendations based on what you've been playing. It also recommends music based on your listening habits.
MOG doesn't combine friends into a browsable network the way Rdio does. Instead, it acts more like one giant web of people interconnected by the artists and bands they like. From a band's MOG page you can jump to the profile pages of the MOG users who play that group's songs most often, which leads you to the other bands and songs they like.
You can follow the MOG users whose tastes are most appealing, but that just means you'll be notified in a Facebook-like news feed when they contribute something to MOG (e.g., a review or a blog post). MOG began as a platform for blogging, and it offers a rich array of content from users and music bloggers from around the net. In fact, it has the richest collection of music news, reviews and features of any of the subscription services; by comparison, Rdio is quite thin.
The same is true for their mobile applications. MOG's app offers far more functionality such as the ability to browse MOG's charts, recommended tracks and user playlists, without being harder to use. Rdio's sole advantage is that its app is available for the Blackberry as well as the iPhone and Android phones. MOG is just on the latter two, at least for now. Both also have the ability to cache songs on the phone so you can listen to them even when you're offline -- a nice feature for people with iffy connectivity or non-unlimited data plans.
My biggest complaint about Rdio is that its selection of independent and lesser-known artists doesn't match the other subscription services' catalogs. Merlin, a trade group representing indie labels, greeted Rdio's launch with a loud harrumph Tuesday, with CEO Charles Caldas lamenting, “It is incredibly disappointing that Rdio have launched their new service across North America without having finalized a deal for the world’s most important independent labels and artists."
In practical terms, that meant Rdio didn't have the two most interesting new releases on its launch day: The Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" or Versus' "On the Ones and Threes." OK, maybe my tastes aren't mainstream, and most of you might have been perfectly satisfied with the new Lady Gaga remix LP. I'm just saying that Rdio isn't as complete as MOG and some of its other competitors. That's a problem that Rdio can solve over time. Its technology is also off to a good start, although it still has some catching up to do.
Updated, 4:53 p.m.: Rdio e-mailed a response to the complaint voiced by Merlin. "Rdio plans to offer its subscribers the widest range of music and today we announced the addition of five new indie aggregators bringing our total collection to seven million songs," CEO Drew Larner said. "It is our policy not to comment on specific deal negotiations until they're completed, so we hope your readers will understand our reluctance to provide further detail." Tracks from the five aggregators -- The Orchard, IODA, IRIS, Finetunes and INgrooves -- are in the process of being added to Rdio's library.
Updated, 11:19 a.m. Wednesday: The "match collection" feature worked better on my home PC, where it was able to identify a little more than half the songs stored there. Still, that's a pretty good indication of the gaps in the current Rdio catalog.
-- Jon Healey