How I Learned to Love Subscription-Based Music

This article first appeared in Issue 16 of The Loop Magazine.


For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved listening to music — without a doubt, it is my favorite leisure activity. Music is a part of everyday life for me; rare is the day that I don’t listen to something, even if it’s just one song. I listen to it while I write. I listen to it while I walk around town. I listen to it on the bus. I listen to it therapeutically, as I find music is a great stress reliever during times when I’m angry or otherwise upset. (Case in point: I very recently lost a close family member, and have found that Eminem’s new album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, has really helped me channel my emotions during these still-very-trying times.) All of this to say that I love music, so much so that I can’t imagine my life without it.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration for me to say that I live most of my life with my EarPods virtually attached to me, as if they were an appendage. The majority of the music I listen to is done via my iPhone. But I no longer use the stock iOS Music app, as I had done for the last several years. Nowadays, my music-listening is done via Rdio, the streaming music service.

For me, joining Rdio earlier this year was a watershed moment. It has completely changed the way I access music, as well as change the way I feel about owning music versus using a subscription-based service. Moreover, Rdio, in software terms, has earned a place amongst my personal pantheon of best-of-breed iOS apps, alongside other favorites such as Tweetbot and Day One. I’m proud to be able to say that I’m a subscription music convert.

MANY FORMATS, SAME MUSIC


Having grown up a child of the ‘80s (I was born in 1981), I’m old enough to remember technologies that today seem anachronistic judged against things like Rdio and iTunes. I have fond memories of going to the record store every Tuesday — Tuesday being the day artists typically put out new music — to peruse the aisles and check out what was new that week. More often than not, I would leave the store with bag in hand, first with cassettes then later CDs, of my favorite artists’ new material. I was (and still am) a big fan of hip-hop, R&B, and rock music, so I would bring home music from the likes of Puff Daddy (as he was known in the ’90s), Blink 182, and Boyz II Men, among others. I spent a king’s ransom on cassettes and CDs, and still have many of them to this day, stuffed in a box in my closet. Every once in a while, I’ll dig out the box and look through what’s left of my collection; it serves as a nostalgic reminder that I spent my adolescent years without the now-ubiquitous spoils of streaming content and iOS devices. Compare and contrast my adolescence with that of today’s youth, and it’s amazing to think about how fast technology moves. By current standards, my memories are like something out of the Stone Age.

It wasn’t until December 2007, when I bought the original iPhone, that I started to embrace digital media. Upon getting that first iPhone — which, incidentally, was my first-ever Apple product, period — I shifted from going to the record store every week for CDs to every week scouring the New Releases section of the iTunes Store. I loved the convenience and the feeling of instant gratification of downloading albums on demand so much that my CD-buying eventually came to a screeching halt. Even then, my old cassettes and compact discs seemed so archaic in comparison to the new hotness (to me) that was iTunes. I went all-in, spending just as much money as before, but only now it was for a bunch of MP3 files instead of a bunch of plastic discs. It was at this time that I packed up my suddenly quaint physical media and threw it into the aforementioned closet.

GOOD-BYE ITUNES, HELLO RDIO


It took a few years, but iTunes eventually started to look as weary as my old tapes and CDs did. I grew increasingly frustrated with managing my iTunes library and with iTunes’s idiosyncratic syncing behaviors. Sometimes checked albums wouldn’t sync to my phone; sometimes album art was missing on the device; and sometimes tracks were listed out of order for no apparent reason. Add in the complexity of syncing multiple devices, and I came to a point where I no longer was willing to fiddle with iTunes (iCloud notwithstanding), regardless of how much time and money I had invested into it.

Enter Rdio.

I was reluctant at first to fully move away from iTunes because I liked the idea that I owned my music, and that my music was stored locally on my devices. But, after reading good things from Shawn Blanc, I decided to sign up for Rdio and check it out. I was hooked immediately.

Chief among these reasons I find Rdio so appealing is that, for one low monthly price, I have access to all the music my ears can handle. In the past, I kept a running list of “albums to buy” — I couldn’t possibly buy every single album I wanted in one fell swoop, or else end up in bankruptcy court. Keeping this wish list was frustrating because I spent a lot of time struggling to cherry-pick which album(s) took highest priority given my budget. As a result, I felt as though I was missing out on lots of good music because I couldn’t afford everything. With Rdio, however, I can pay $10 to have anything and everything my heart desires. I can add as many albums or songs to my Collection as I want, and delete them just as easily if I find they’re not to my liking. I don’t need to worry about keeping a list or staying within my budget or — worse — spending money on an album that I thought was going to be great but turns out to be less than expected. I’m also no longer concerned with the notion of “owning” the music. All this is very liberating.

Another more technical reason in Rdio’s favor is that their app syncs across devices, on iOS and Mac. My Collection and even what I’m currently listening to is synced from my iPhone to my iPad Air to my MacBook. No matter where I am or what device I’m using, I have all my music with me, at all times. Furthermore, I find Rdio’s iOS app to be gorgeous, design-wise. Though the app was created in the iOS 6 era, its look is unique and feels right at home with iOS 7. My favorite aspect of the aesthetic is how the background color of the Now Playing screen is taken from the color(s) of the respective album art; it’s beautiful and Apple-like in terms of delight and attention to detail. A very nice touch, indeed.

Of course, despite my praise, Rdio isn’t without its imperfections.

SUBSCRIPTION MUSIC’S UNDERBELLY


Rdio’s warts aren’t blemishes that are exclusive to its specific offering — rather, the problems I have with Rdio are problems that affect all subscription music services.

The biggest wart, to me, is smartphone data plan usage. Since joining Rdio, it’s easier than ever for me to plow through my monthly allotment of data, and I have AT&T’s largest plan ($50 for 5GB per month). As such, I have to be very conscientious of the amount of time I spend in Rdio on LTE. This issue is exacerbated by the fact my home Wi-Fi network is crippled by a slower-than-slow DSL connection. What this means is I oftentimes switch to LTE to listen at home because my Wi-Fi is so pokey. On the bright side, I only recently learned that you can sync music to be played offline, no Internet connection required. I plan to look into it, so hopefully it’ll help me save on my cellular data.

The other issue I have is with selection. One of my favorite albums is Metallica’s 2008 LP, Death Magnetic. iTunes has it, but Rdio does not. That Rdio is missing the album isn’t a great catastrophe, but I admit to missing it in my Collection. Yes, I could sync Death Magnetic to my devices via iTunes, but I’d prefer it be in Rdio along with all my other music. Call me finicky. All this said, the lack of selection parity between iTunes and Rdio is most certainly due to licensing deals with the labels, so at least Rdio encourages users to let them know if there are bands and/or albums that they’d like the company to add.

Overall, iTunes has advantages over Rdio (and similar services) in two major regards: (1) listening using Music.app means the music is local, not dependent upon the network ; and (2) iTunes is far better in terms of variety. Nonetheless, I still prefer Rdio for its “all-you-can-eat” model and prettier iOS app. The bottom line is I’m willing to accept these trade-offs because I so enjoy the service.

ON DISCOVERY AND ITUNES RADIO


For better or worse, I’m pretty set in my ways when it comes to what and who I listen to. I have my favorite artists and albums, and I generally stick to those. I don’t branch out very often to discover new artists, let alone new genres. When I do feel like something new, however, I find that Rdio is very good at recommending new music. What’s more, the try-music-risk-free feature I spoke of earlier makes it really easy to find, say, a new band, download a song of theirs, and check them out. If I don’t like it, I’m not out any money, and I can just delete said song from my Collection and move on.

iTunes Radio interests me. Since iOS 7 was released, I haven’t used the feature at all until now, as research for this piece. (Rdio has similar functionality, called “Stations”) In my testing, it seems that iTunes’s stations algorithms are good; the Hip-Hop station, for instance, introduced me to a couple artists that I’d never previously heard of. In addition, that you can buy a song from within the station as you’re listening is slick — a textbook example of Apple integration.

It’s hard to say who has the stronger recommendation engine. If you’re like me and committed to Rdio, then its Stations feature will do just fine as a discovery tool. If, on the other hand, you like iTunes, then iTunes Radio is great. Obviously, my bias leans heavily towards Rdio, but iTunes Radio is impressive nonetheless.

THE BOTTOM LINE


For me, access trumps ownership. At this point, I find it more appealing to pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to all the music I want. I’m willing to accept that this means my data usage is higher, and that Rdio’s catalog is smaller than iTunes’s. These are compromises I’m willing to make.

Rdio is undoubtedly the best new thing I tried this year.