Back in October 2012 I was in Montreal for Access. One evening I was over at the cool place where Dan Chudnov and his wife were staying. Some cool music was playing: hard bop with a trumpet lead, maybe Lee Morgan. It was all cool.
“Who is this?”
“I don’t know,” said Dan.
“It’s a playlist on Rdio. I only have one playlist there, called ‘Rudy.’ Every time I come across a Rudy Van Gelder remaster I add it to the list. Then I just put it on shuffle.”
Damn, I thought, that is fantastic. That night I signed up for Rdio. I listened to it almost every day for the next three years.
Rdio was great. Well, for two years or so it was great, then they made some changes and for a year it was just very good; looking back I see the changes were a failed attempt to stave off the problems that ended up putting them into bankruptcy and being bought by Pandora. See Vox’s Why Rdio Died for more about all that.
“Social from the ground up—it sounds like marketing speak, but it was legit,” says Chris Becherer, Rdio’s head of product. “The founding premise was the best music recommendations come from the people you know. That was the whole idea.”
That idea is correct. The social side of Rdio was wonderful: by following people you could see what they were listening to, what albums they’d added to their collection (you could see when someone discovered a new band), what playlists they were making, what comments they’d left, who they were following. I followed about fifty people: some old friends; Dan and a bunch of other Code4Lib people; librarians and archivists I work with or know around Ontario; some writers and musicians I discovered were on the system; and some people I just knew by repute on the web.
The best thing about Rdio (until they changed it and made it harder to find) was that your home page was a feed of what they people you followed had done recently. Every time you checked, you could see what people were listening to. It hepped me to all kinds of new music.
When playing an album—it was album-oriented, as I am—you could see the avatars of people who’d played that album recently. After a while I began to notice the same people showing up as having listened to some of the less popular albums I was checking out, ones only a few people had played in the last few months. I checked their profiles and saw that they listened to some stuff I knew I liked and some stuff I didn’t know at all—but on experimenting I found I liked a lot of it.
So I started following those people, and then all kinds of new music started opening up. These people knew a lot about music and they were happy to share their discoveries! I’d see their comments and recommendations, and if they really dug something, I’d listen. I picked up on a lot of great music that way, new and old.
The social side doesn’t only work starting from people you already know—you can get to know (in an online way) people from the music they listen to and review.
I couldn’t possibly make a list of all of the musicians and composers I got to like because of recommendations from my Rdio network, so I’ll just pick one: Circle. A fellow named CAW aka the Aquatic Ape—I’m pretty sure he’s a fellow and that he lives in the US, but that’s all—started pointing out albums or tracks by them, and when I listened, I really liked what I heard. I’m still listening. (I’ll do a list of my favourite tracks some day, but if you want to try one, check their cover of Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets” from Serpent. Glorious.)
My sincere thanks to CAW and everyone else I followed on Rdio who opened up my ears to new music.
Late last year, Rdio went bankrupt. What to do? Apple’s iTunes and Google’s Play Music are out from the start. I tried Spotify but it was kind of creepy, and on Linux I had to install a proprietary binary, so that’s a no go.
I ended up with Deezer, and a bunch of other Rdio people also went, and tried to make a go of it. It has social features: you can follow people and, to some extent, see what they’ve been listening to or have recommended.
The thing is, Deezer is shite. Everything about it is worse than Rdio—except, as one person pointed out, that it hasn’t gone bankrupt. But the web player, the Android app, the social side: the queue: all shite. I won’t go into details, but believe me, it all works, but it’s basically shite.
That’s a screenshot of Deezer, with a social sidebar where CAW (under a new name) is recommending Bright Lights and Filthy Nights by Nina Walsh, which doesn’t look like the kind of thing I dig, but I’m happy to know about it. Skydivingrhino and geemarcus are two other Rdio people whose recommendations I always liked. They’re on Deezer but no one is as active there as on Rdio, and it’s so much harder to do anything social that it’s tough to find the energy.
Also, the music quality isn’t good. I regularly came across albums where the quality of their digital version was so poor it was distorted. I never had that problem on Rdio. I listen to distorted music, sure, but I want that to be the artist’s intent, not a bad rip.
So: the social side doesn’t work and the music doesn’t sound good.
The hell with that, I decided, and signed up with Tidal.
There is no social side to Tidal. None at all. But the music quality is great. It costs more, but $20 a month is still fine by me, and if more goes to the artists, that’s even better. It doesn’t have everything Rdio had (some Rush albums are missing?!), or Deezer had (no Glass Box), but it has artists they didn’t (Prince), and anyway, if I really want something I’ll buy it, on CD or as FLAC. Of course I already own all the Rush.
The web interface and the app are nice. They are not shite.
Things I hope Tidal does:
- Goes social.
- Lets me follow labels.
- Remembers my listening history.
- Integrates the app and the web client; being able to control what’s playing on the web version from the app is great when you have a cat on your lap.
- Improves the tool tips on links so that when I hover over a song or album it gives full information.
- Adds recommendations based on my listening.
- Lets me personalize what it thinks I might like, by letting me plus and minus tracks it suggests.
- Lets me add albums and playlists to queues.
In other words, the more it does to be like Rdio, the better.
In the mean time, I’ll get by. I miss the social side, but I miss it when it worked, on a site that’s gone, a lot more than the shite version on a site that’s still around.
For my part now, I’m going to try to post more about music I’m listening to, and give some favourite new discoveries or playlists I’ve made.
All the streaming music services are silos. You can export playlists from one to another, and Rdio let me download all my data before it went bust (my thanks to the core developers to whom I suspect this meant so much they made the company do it), but once you sign up with one service, you’re isolated, and no one on other services can see what you’re doing (except, to a limited extent, through Last.fm or Libre.fm).
There’s no indie web solution to online streaming music yet. We need one.
Some sources I use for finding new music:
- All Music: a fantastic resource, especially given the terrible metadata on all streaming music sites.
- The Guardian’s music coverage: all kinds of coverage, from classical to Dom Lawson on metal; it’s where I got hepped to Bo Ningen.
- Alex Ross’s blog: when he has something in heavy rotation, I listen.
- Gramophone: hours of listening to be discovered in every issue.
- Down Beat: same; turned me on to Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls.
- @tedgioia, jazz writer and critic Ted Gioia on Twitter.
- Dangerdog and Invisible Oranges for metal.
One last recommendation: “204” by Booker Ervin, from Tex Book Tenor, recorded in 1968 with Ervin on tenor, Woody Shaw on trumpet, Kenny Barron on piano, Jan Arnet on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. Post bop that takes off like a rocket and swings hard, with blistering solos and tasty eights at the end. And recorded by Rudy Van Gelder!