A Year of Rdio

I have long been skeptical of music subscription services like Spotify and Rdio. What serious music fan would pay a monthly fee to have a remote, fallible gatekeeper between himself and a woefully incomplete music catalog? To forsake my personal collection in favor of that system would be like dumping a lifetime’s worth of home equity to move into a rental apartment in a gated community. That’s what people do when they’re getting ready to die, and I think I’ve still got a few good years left in me. Besides, for now, all but the very biggest artists would be even more financially fucked than they already are if everyone listened to music exclusively on subscription services.

But last fall I was convinced to give Rdio a chance after a friend showed me how he used it as a try-before-you-buy service. As a discovery mechanism to augment my personal collection, the prospect of a subscription service was suddenly intriguing. At any given time, there is a ton of music, new and old, that I’d like to properly investigate before committing to a purchase. For ten bucks a month, Rdio would give me unlimited access to a lot of that music, all in one place. I decided to give it a whirl.

Moments after signing up, I dove in head first, and in the months that followed, I wolfed down music at an unprecedented rate, dutifully working my way through a mental checklist of veteran bands who had long needed my attention as well an avalanche of new releases. When my subscription reached the one-year mark last week, I came up for air to take inventory on my Rdio experience so far. The results were startling.

In 365 days, I had listened to a whopping 362 unique albums that were new to me – nearly one per day. This is good news for quantifiably getting my money’s worth from Rdio, but here’s the problem: of those 362 albums (a great many of which were very good), only 24 got repeat listens, and only 3 were purchased. Worse still, even though I bought other albums sight unseen from trusted artists, my personal collection’s rate of growth dwindled to a fraction of even the leanest of recent years. I have been listening to more music than ever, but the goal of augmenting my personal collection has been an abject failure.

Bar chart of monthly music purchases (measured in hours) from late 2004 to present
I bought only 15 hours of music during my first year of Rdio, compared to as much as 81 hours in recent years.

I think the concept of investment is at the core of this issue. When I buy an album, I’ll make an effort to enjoy it for the sake of my investment, even if I don’t immediately like it. I spent money on it, it’s taking up space on my hard drive and/or shelf, and I want that to count for something. But subscribing to Rdio is a different kind of investment. Rather than investing in one album, I’ve invested in all the albums, which is the same as investing in none of them. If something doesn’t grab me right away, I don’t have an incentive to return to it, which limits my repeat exposure to only the music with the most superficial rewards. And even that stuff is quickly overcome by the newer and shinier stuff constantly spraying from Rdio’s fire hose.

The numbers make this pattern clear: in a year’s time, a new song I’ve purchased has a 77% better chance of being heard multiple times than a song discovered on Rdio does, and it will be played three times as much.

Comparison of repeat play averages between Rdio and my personal collection
New music I’ve bought sees a lot more action than music I’ve discovered on Rdio.

So what? Why do repeat plays matter as long as I’m listening to more music than I was before? Isn’t listening to more music the whole point? Well, yes and no.

Repetition is important for music. Not only is it virtually impossible to fully appreciate a song on the first listen, but repetition is one of the fundamental building blocks of music, and repeated listening is a continuation of that inherent rhythm. This is part of the reason we might listen to our favorite album over and over again while our favorite film or book will only be experienced a relative handful of times.

Short of making a career of it, the amount of music I’ve heard in the last year couldn’t be meaningfully absorbed in such a short time. And I want my music experience to be meaningful. I’m more interested in a challenging, nuanced relationship with music than a fleeting sonic dalliance. Taking a different escort out every night is fun, but I want someone to come home to. So the goal for my second year of Rdio is to figure out how to use it as something more than an escort service.

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