Rdio, Tangible Products, and Consumer Responsibility

Last night, Rob Weychert, he of impressive beard and air guitar championship record, published a post on his year of using music discovery/streaming service Rdio. I’m inclined to offer some thoughts as well, because it’s been over a year for me, and my experience has been somewhat different from Rob’s.

The gist of Rob’s piece is that in the past year, while he’s listened to a huge amount of music, he’s devoted less time to individual releases. He’s accustomed to the obligation of a concrete purchase to spur him to give albums a chance, over repeat listens. That lack of investment, time-wise and emotionally, translated into fewer instances of actual purchase.

My experience has been quite different, and I think it’s because I don’t rely on Rdio exclusively. For discovery, I still rely on Pitchfork, Boomkat, The Wire, Soundcloud, other music blogs, the recommendations of friends, and so on. Sometimes I’ll try something in the ‘Heavy Rotation’ area of Rdio, but for the most part these recommendations don’t interest me (possibly because my network doesn’t really share the full range of my tastes).

I suppose it would be easy to fall into a prescribed kind of listening behaviour if I was relying solely on Rdio. However, I think there’s an obligation on the user to fit a service into their lives in a way that adds value. Sometimes a service can remove too much friction, and facilitate a level of laziness or irresponsibility. Ultimately, however, it’s up to us to find a balance. This is true of the effect Facebook has on our friendships, of Instagram on our photography habits, of Twitter on writing.

As far as listening to music is concerned, I’ve always preferred full albums, not songs. I never got into playlists or shuffling. I like the arc of an album, the larger scope and canvas for exploration and storytelling, the potential for variations in mood, tone and intensity. Rdio didn’t change this.

What also hasn’t changed is my investment in individual albums. I don’t just put a lot of different songs or albums the queue and let it play in the background. I listen actively, I put records on repeat, sometimes making playlists of a few complementary records. If I get bored of an album in a few listens, then I move on—I like records that yield more the more you invest in them.

But Weychert’s point is more that the superficial level of listening he’s tended towards has led to fewer purchases, and this is something I’ve been increasingly concerned with. There’s no deny that music subscription services effectively let users off the hook, in terms of supporting artists with album purchases. I’m bothered by the fact that the artists I listen to through Rdio are getting a raw deal, by not being adequately paid for the music (while Rdio isn’t represented in that infographic, I think it’s safe to assume the pay structure is similar to that of Spotify).

There’s a line of thinking that suggests that live shows are no longer used to promote albums and drive sales, that there’s been a reversal, and music is now freely distributed to draw and concert audiences and sell tickets. This seems alien to someone like me, a huge shift from my early days of music collecting. I was the guy who paid $30 for a single ‘import’ CD from a record label based in the very city I was purchasing it. I used to drive long distances with friends to basement shows, in part to buy rare releases from distro bins. In the end, I don’t think it has to be one way or the other—it’s great that live shows are even more integral than ever, but as a consumer of recorded music, I can do better.

Part of the trouble is tangibility. An additional $10 per album seems like a lot of money for some digital files, when the files are already available for streaming. I have a turntable, but I’m increasingly loathe to buy actual objects, even though that would psychologically offset the expense, and solve the tangibility problem.

I could stop subscribing to Rdio, and invest the money instead in the few records that I really get attached to in a given year. But I do enjoy the social aspect of it, and I’ve come to rely on the service for the tremendous back-catalogue of classics. This is where it really shines—it has a tremendous collection of jazz, classical, soul, funk, blues. I feel less guilt about using Rdio for access to older recordings that have been around for awhile, especially when the publishers have been subsumed by larger companies, or the artists have passed away.

Rdio’s value in terms of visibility and exposure can’t be overstated, either. Some friends released an independently published album a few months back, and for a brief time were in the Rdio’s top 30. I suspect a great many more artists are getting heard by an increasingly wider audience these days, thanks to Facebook, Youtube, music blogs, Soundcloud and subscription services like Rdio and Spotify. Things are certainly different from the model when I was a teenager, in which the cost of entry was the full price of the album (often $20 for a CD), and the best you could hope for, in terms of trying before buying, was the listening post at HMV.

Ultimately, I’m going to continue using Rdio, but I’m going to make an effort to invest in the artists that I really enjoy. I have no problem supporting writers and inventors on Kickstarter, or subscribing to new web design periodicals like the Manual and Offscreen. Why should it be any different for music? The problem is it’s too easy to put it off, to not click ‘purchase’.

Here’s a thought. What if Rdio gently suggested consumers purchase a record, once they hit a certain play count? Make it opt-in, and let users set the threshold. The occasional purchase of a record that I’ve demonstrably enjoyed would help me feel better about using the service in general.