The Death of Rdio and the State of Music Online
Rdio, one of the earliest music streaming services of its kind to launch in America, is closing its doors after being acquired by Pandora. Pandora does not plan to operate Rdio as its own business, but is rather using Rdio’s assets and technology to further its own operations. The service shuts down for good on December 22nd, having closed subscriptions a month ago.
Rdio occupied a unique place in streaming. It launched a Blackberry app ahead of its competition Rhapsody – one of the first apps of its stripe. Geared towards discovery – and user choice – Rdio offered more specificity than Pandora, but had the misfortune of launching in the midst of buzz over Spotify. Spotify’s free options eventually pushed Rdio into offering a free tier, but by that point, the damage to its user base was done.
As the streaming landscape thins out, there are a lot of questions raised, chief among them the feasibility of making money off of music in the Internet age. Awhile back an article in The Atlantic trumpeted the death of the artist and the rise of the creative entrepreneur. it was shared massively amongst creative professionals, who find themselves gigging, recording session work, and teaching lessons and/or classes in order to cobble together something resembling a career, all while doing their own booking, marketing, and social media. It rang true for a lot of people.
Music on the Internet is weird and tricky, and it doesn’t help that the music world’s introduction to it was the free-for-all of Napster. The Internet has been an incredibly democratizing force, offering niche artists like Jonathan Coulton a platform to reach a fan base they never could otherwise, and giving us breakouts like Christina Perri, or The Gregory Brothers. It’s allowed musicians to reach listeners further and wider afield than ever before, without first having to please an A&R rep or a tastemaker.
Unfortunately, it’s also made it a lot harder for those musicians to earn a living once they do break out. (Consider these YouTube stars too recognizable for day jobs, but too poor to live off of YouTube revenue.) In the modern landscape, artists like “Weird Al” Yankovic and James Taylor are seeing the first chart-topping albums of their careers. Part of that is due to good relationships with their fan bases (and Yankovic’s uncanny use of Internet publicity) but part of it also is that album sales have plummeted so much that the competition isn’t as stiff, and stalwarts with older fan bases can come out on top because newer musicians are streaming records, not selling them. Established artists like Iggy Pop are turning to DJ sets and modeling gigs to pay the bills. As artists from Thom Yorke to Taylor Swift eschew services like Spotify for providing insufficient revenue, the outcome looks grim for a lot of up-and-comers. (And even sort of grim for Spotify, which has yet to become profitable with 75 million people listening in.)
Streaming is a hard game for anyone to earn money from. Labels take a whopping cut, and of course the services have to keep their servers running. This doesn’t leave a lot for the artists themselves. And indie music sites like CDBaby and Bandcamp are geared more towards musicians and hardline music fans than the widespread appeal of places like iTunes and Spotify.
Of course, Rdio made a lot of mistakes. The interface could be clunky, there was no in-house marketing team to speak of, and a 2013 deal with Cumulus Media proved disastrous. Towards the end, the service had a hard time figuring out what it wanted to be. But you can almost blame that on the landscape as much as anything.
This isn’t a judgment, at least not necessarily a negative one. Artists getting the short end of the stick at the hands of streaming companies is pretty similar to artists getting the short end of the stick at the hands of major record labels. This isn’t an indictment, just the observation that the industry right now is very much in flux. There’s every chance in the world that a solution could emerge before long that works for everyone, but in the meantime, Rdio’s death makes a strange scene that much stranger.