Friday, August 9, 2013

Rdio's streaming Stations aim to understand music fans, not just music

Stuart Dredge/

Streaming music comes in various forms. There are the on-demand services like Spotify, Deezer, Rdio and now Google's All Access, providing unlimited access to big catalogues of songs for free and/or for a monthly subscription.

Then there are personal radio services like Pandora and the upcomingiTunes Radio, which generate streaming stations of music based on specific genres, artists and songs, or based on the preferences of the listener.

Then there's good old traditional radio being streamed over the internet; non-interactive services like Mixcloud where you're listening to other people's mixes and playlists; cloud locker services where you upload your existing MP3 collection and then stream it to various devices.

But an important trend in 2013 is for hybrids of these different forms. All Access does on-demand, personal radio and has a cloud locker; mobile app offers free personal radio then lets you download a set number of tracks if you pay; and Spotify and Deezer have had personal radio features for some time.

Now Rdio does too. The service, which was launched in the US in 2010 by entrepreneurs Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, who'd previously founded filesharing network Kazaa and little-known Voice-over-IP service Skype. Its UK debut came in 2012.

Rdio has just added a feature called Stations, which to all intents and purposes offers similar personal radio functionality to the company's on-demand rivals, but with the elegant design that's quietly made the service an increasingly credible alternative to its more high-profile rivals.

There are 10 types of stations, including the ability to launch a stream of music related to an artist, song or genre. But it can also play a station based on your "Collection" – albums you've bookmarked for easy access on Rdio – or on the listening habits of specific Rdio users.

They might be friends, musicians, media or other tastemakers, while a Heavy Rotation station generates its playlist based on what all the people you follow on Rdio have been listening to.

And there's also a station called You FM, which pulls in your listening history, Facebook Likes and Twitter follows (if you've connected those two services to Rdio) and tracks you've voted up or down in the past to serve a stream of music it thinks you'll like – complete with a slider bar to tell it how much new stuff you'd like to hear.

Rdio is working with music tech firm The Echo Nest, using its Taste Profiles technology to understand what you listen to and how you listen to it – how often and how adventurous and diverse you are in your choices – to serve up music.

Rdio's vice president of product, Chris Becherer, says the Stations feature has been designed to complement the on-demand aspect, rather that sit apart from it. If you like a track playing as part of a station, you can jump to its parent album, and vice versa.

"We wanted to provide a seamless transition between passive listening and active on-demand listening: a service that allows users to hop seamlessly between the two," he says.

"A lot of services cater to the lean-back experience [of personal radio] and a lot cater to that lean-forward on-demand experience, but we don't feel there's any service that lets you bounce between the two effortlessly."

There was one: I remember having an impressive demo of US streaming music service Mog a few years ago, which had similar hopability between its personal radio and on-demand features, complete with a slider bar to guide the adventurousness of its suggestions.

Mog never quite made it to the UK, but it ended up getting bought by headphones maker Beats to use as the base for its own Beats Music streaming service, which is due to launch later this year. In the meantime, Rdio appears to have done a good job of pushing its best feature on.

Rdio doesn't quite have the profile of, say, Spotify or Deezer. The company has never announced user or subscriber numbers, so while we know that Spotify has 24m active users and 6m paying subscribers, and Deezer has 10m users and 4m subscribers, Rdio's silence has hinted that its numbers are small by comparison.

The only useful stat comes from Facebook, whose figures show that Rdio has somewhere between 1m and 5m monthly active users and between 100,000 and 500,000 daily active users – in both cases, though, this only counts people who've connected their Rdio and Facebook accounts.

In recent months, though, anecdotal evidence suggests Rdio has been growing. Its iPhone app has been riding high in some countries' App Store charts, for example, while clever partnerships with music identification apps like Shazam have raised awareness of Rdio.

"Mobile is huge for us right now: it's where most of our new registrations are coming from," says Becherer. "Two thirds of our new registrations come in from mobile, and 90% of our subscribers are accessing Rdio from their mobile devices, although most do use both mobile and web."

The launch of Stations is partly to match the personal radio features of Rdio's rivals, and partly to continue building its understanding of its users.

"As you invest time into listening on this service, it'll be returned to you in the form of better recommendations and discovery," says Becherer.

"Whether you're listening to a station or an album, we're learning about you, and taking that into account. That's why it makes sense to have one service where you listen to stations, albums and playlists."

There's one other competitor hoving into view, of course: Apple with its iTunes Radio, which lacks an on-demand element, but will come preloaded with the second most popular smartphone and tablet ecosystem in the world, iOS.

How does Rdio feel about that competition? Becherer certainly talks a good game.

"We really think the crux of this is seamless transition from stations listening to albums listening. iTunes Radio is specifically a radio experience: there's no on-demand listening there," he says.

"And even on the stations part, iTunes doesn't really have social built in the way that Rdio does. This ability to create a station based on a friend or an influencer is not something that iTunes Radio has built in."

By itself, Stations might not look like big news in the bigger digital music picture: another on-demand streaming service adding personal radio to its features.

But it's a reminder that Rdio is more than a minor player in this space, capable of innovating around seemingly-standard features, and pushing its bigger rivals to continue pushing forward themselves.

"They have a very engineering-led, agile culture: great on the front-end user experience side of things, but they also understand the importance of data as well," says Jim Lucchese, chief executive of The Echo Nest.

"Stations is a really elegant execution around what Taste Profiles are capable of, but still simple and intuitive. You're seeing their understanding of who you are as a music fan, which is an exciting step forward."

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