Spotify and its cooler, minimalist cousin, Rdio, hit U.S. shores at the perfect time. A generation that had torrented music since Smash Mouth ruled the airwaves was finally entering the workforce, ready to consider a legal way to consume music. (That is, 2011.)
Even then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to bother with either music-streaming service. Why I would give up my old ways of hoarding tons of MP3s on my laptop/iPod in favor of renting out tracks or whatever it was that people did on Rhapsody? (Maybe all '80s/'90s kids remember the days of Columbia House’s mail-order music club — “12 CDs for 1 cent!” — and implicitly don’t trust any “legitimate” way to get unlimited music for little money.) I also didn’t quite understand the difference between streaming services and Pandora, which we joked at work had a secret “all stations lead back to Radiohead” rule.
But, eventually, the tides turned and I saw that these streaming services were more evolved than the glitchy radio stations I had pictured. By then, I was conducting my whole life on my work computer, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting my employer sued over misuse of Shakira's intellectual property. Time to start streaming.
I started with Spotify, but kept getting tripped up by their ads. I had to write the copy for one once, which I hope none of you ever heard. I hated these ads so much I went to Rdio just to spite Spotify. At least Rdio respected my intelligence enough not to use chipper lady voices talking about Spanx to make me take out my wallet.
Rdio kept me in its clutches with its pristine color palette and generally superior sense of design. Most of my friends weren’t on Rdio, but my boyfriend was and so were most of the graphic designers at my work. I had noticed that graphic design-minded people had good music, and I was benefitting from seeing what these aesthetes had in "Heavy Rotation.”
This was all great in theory, but didn’t lead to a very inspired era of music-loving for me. While I enjoyed seeing what my friends and colleagues were listening to, it seemed to create a cyclical effect where we all kept listening to the same five artists over and over. Every time I opened Rdio, it showed me that my network's Heavy Rotation was still Washed Out, Father John Misty, Vampire Weekend, Lorde, and Bon Iver. While this music is mostly inoffensive and nice to work to, it became a self-perpetuating system that didn’t lead to much discovery or risk taking.
I also had a couple odd experiences with Rdio. The first one was due to their heavy emphasis on what your friends are listening to. I couldn’t help but notice that my friend Mark was listening to Jason Derulo far more often than I would have expected him to. Upon asking about this, it turned out the Jason Derulo superfan was actually another friend who looked like Mark in his tiny, circular profile picture. In my mind, Mark returned to the person with a modest-at-most predilection for the music of Jason Derulo.
The other weird experience was when I played with the knob on Rdio’s "Becky FM” station, which lets you turn the music selection to be more “adventurous.” Whenever I opted for adventure, it seemed to spit out only male artists. Oh, I see how it is ...
I quit Rdio for Spotify a few months ago. Curious about the other side, I took Spotify up on a free three-month trial. The first thing I noticed was that their design interface had far surpassed that of Rdio, which had stayed comfortable with restrained minimalism and had stayed basically the same. Spotify had developed a more dynamic system of recommendations/browsing and, for whatever reason, made it way easier for me to build my collection of music in just 40 minutes or so.
The most surprising thing about Spotify was its vast library of playlists, which read like market research PDFs about millennials. One morning it might suggest a "YOLO" playlist, and at night a "FOMO" playlist. When you click through on the “Chill” tile, you discover the multitudes of ways to chill, including "Alt Chill," "4 a.m." "Comedown," "Chill as Folk," "Chillstep," or "Just Chillin.'"
While these playlists have cheesy names and even cheesier stock photography, I found myself listening to them almost constantly. "Spring Break" playlist? Sure! "Friday Office Party"? Why not? Something about the pure silliness of them silenced the music snob in me, allowing me to leave my comfort zone more often.
Most tickling of all was the "Discover Weekly" playlist Spotify made for me every week. For the picture, it slapped a hip gradient over my Facebook profile picture, making me feel like I was one those kewl stock photo girls in the "TGIF" or "Club Chic" playlists. The playlist actually nailed my taste in music every week, something I can’t exactly say for Rdio’s "Becky FM" feature.
The biggest difference was that I was actually discovering new music all the time on Spotify. Its service encouraged me to keep on browsing and discovering what was new, rather than ushering me right back into Washed Out every time I opened it.
After this experience, I wasn't too surprised Monday when Rdio announced Monday that it's shutting down. Spotify has evolved in leaps and bounds, all the while bringing its own goofy character to music discovery. Rdio has remained mostly the same. I hope that Pandora can give as many Rdio employees jobs as possible, and use their services to make something cool. For now I’ll say, Rdio will always be on "Heavy Rotation" in our hearts.