About Recorded Music, Albums, Rdio, and Streaming iTunes

This is how I’ve been using Rdio:

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I find an album I’m interested in and add songs I like to my Rdio collection. If I add enough songs to the collection, say half or more of the tracks, then I’ll go ahead and buy the album.

I find it’s better than listening to previews in iTunes or Preview.fm. I’ve purchased stuff from 30 second samples that I’ve regretted, but if I listen to the whole album I know exactly what I’m in for. Between this past weekend and today I’ve heard three albums I had to have that I may not have given full attention to without Rdio.

Which may be a little odd. Rdio, and other streaming services, could potentially serve completely as an iTunes replacement. Instead of buying these albums from iTunes and Amazon I could have just kept them at Rdio. Certainly we’re headed in that direction, simply because this is happening:

Vinyl > Cassettes > CDs > Downloads > Streaming

In the year 2000 CDs were still the norm, but downloads were on the horizon. Here we are in 2010 and downloads are the norm, but streaming is on the horizon. I think that by 2020 streaming will be the norm, if not sooner.

But today the reality is that iTunes is better for music playback than these services. It’s just a better experience. It’s so much faster to browse my collection in iTunes than Rdio or Mog. I get big album art. I get smart playlists. But I just can’t deny the appeal of $9.99 all-I-can-access approach of Rdio, even if it doesn’t contain a lot of music I know I want to listen to (everything on Warp, for example).

And that’s what’s a little troubling to me. There are some artists and labels that I think believe they’re better off without the streaming services. And who can blame them? They have a base that are still paying $9.99 for an album’s worth of tunes, so why should they cut their profits down by participating in streaming services?

One reason is that the people who’ll shell out that $9.99 are diminishing. Up until the late 90s / early 2000s, paying for recorded music was the norm, even if you ended up not liking it. But if you were born in 1992, and acquired your first albums around 2003, your concept of music consumption had a lot more to do with P2P or iTunes than a record store, or even a Target.

I think we kid ourselves when we proclaim that Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead adjusted to this without a problem. The thing we forget is that they were popular bands before their pay-what-you-want experiments. They came of age in the 90s, thanks to terrestrial radio, major label marketing, and MTV. Meanwhile, nobody brings up Saul Williams’s Niggy Tardust in this side of the discussion. Nine Inch Nails has gone on hiatus. Radiohead says they’re not doing albums anymore. No other major artist has done this model since then. Why is that?

“Well, why not just sell lots of merch?” Is this what albums have been reduced to? A loss leader for $20 t-shirts?

I, and others, still believe in the album as an art format. Among music fans there needs to be an understanding that spending $10 on an album results in more than 10 more MP3s on your hard disk. It’s an investment in the music you love. It’s the simplest, most efficient way of telling the market “I enjoy this. I want more like it.” If you don’t do that it will go away, or at least be a lot harder to find.

So rather than risk having digital tracks sit and collect dust, artists and labels are now considering streaming services to encourage discovery by listeners they’ve never had before. Plus, a few bucks from licensing for streaming is better than no dollars.

And maybe that’s a good thing, at least for listeners. Although it’s missing many of my favorite artists, I could surely live off of Rdio if I wanted to. There’s just SO MUCH STUFF available that I’d never run out of things to listen to. Which, in a way, is also its biggest flaw. Rdio, Mog, Spotify, all-you-can-eat streaming encourages perpetual music discovery, which means rarely returning to music you loved the first time around, or realizing the genius behind an album after the 3rd, 4th, or 5th listen. In its place you get a never ending search for serendipity.

The ideal version of this would be some sort of hybrid iTunes/streaming service. Take the local library idea that we’re used to from iTunes and other software and marry it to the on-demand streaming services like Rdio, Mog and Spotify, and let us pretend that the streamed stuff added to our collection is right on our hard drives. That way you can have the stuff that’s not on the streaming services, like your favorite local band, and the entire streaming catalog all in one location.

I think there’s a chance we may see that a week from today.