Beats Music and Rdio
March 05, 2014
As an on-again, off-again Rdio subscriber, I couldn’t help but try out Beats Music when it became available. I’ve used Beats since, and for a couple weeks it even sat on my iPhone homescreen and became my only source for music online. Then last week, I re-subscribed to Rdio. To understand why, consider the five ways I tend to consume music online.
1. Picking something specific
The whole reason I considered a service that wasn’t Pandora is to listen to very specific songs, artists, or albums. My subscription to Pandora went back years, and I was rarely disappointed with it. For the extra cost of using a service like Rdio or Spotify, I argued, I could just buy the specific songs I wanted to listen to in iTunes, and use Pandora for the rest of my listening.
I stuck to this plan for some time, but then someone would want me to play a specific artist or song on a road trip, or Pandora would start repeating songs too often. That’s when I first started playing around with Rdio.1
Beats, on the surface, offers the same play-anything-whenever functionality Rdio and Spotify do. For most people, none of the “big-three” services are going to be substantially better here. That said, I’ve found Beats to not offer some of the artists Rdio does, particularly when it comes to European artists.
The reason I was initially drawn to Pandora, and why I stuck with it for so long, is that a great deal of my listening is “lazy”. I don’t typically want to choose what to listen to, but instead merely pick a mood, genre, or something I know I like and have similar stuff play. Pandora is great at this.
Pandora has a human element to the algorithms it uses, whereas competitors like Rdio and Spotify rely on services like EchoNest which solely use computer analysis to determine what you’re likely to enjoy based on your existing preferences. In truth, Pandora’s method, whether it’s actually due to human interference or not, seems to work better for me, but it’s not so much better that I can’t live with the algorithms used by Rdio and iTunes Radio. Both allow me to choose an artist, song, or genre, and play tracks based on those selections.2 On a per-station basis, you can give a song a “thumbs-up” so Rdio learns what you like to make continued recommendations, or give a “thumbs-down” to prevent that song from playing again, and presumably factoring that in when making further recommendations as well.
Beats doesn’t offer a stations feature, at least not in the same way. Since Beats places curated playlists front and center, even browsing by genre gives a finite amount of songs. Sure, there are many playlists to choose from in a given genre, but you’re forced to choose one. And if you finish one playlist, you have to manually pick another to keep the songs going. It’s not set-and-forget like other services, unless you’re using Beat’s “The Sentence”.
The Sentence isn’t as simple as choosing just a mood or genre. You do define your mood, but add a place, who you’re with, and a genre, and then the system selects songs from its library based on what you’ve “hearted” in the past. It’s an overly-complex method to just start playing music, and I often end up over-thinking the input parameters and hating what Beats spits out. The major difference between The Sentence compared to stations other services generate is that The Sentence uses a global database of what you’ve liked, whereas thumbing things up and down on Rdio is on a per-station basis. In other words, across all the playlists you’ve ever listened to on Beats, and from all the sessions of The Sentence you’ve tuned in to, your “hearts” are factored in when Beats generates tracks it thinks you’ll like.
I don’t find The Sentence to be as good as individual stations. You simply don’t have enough control when choosing what to listen to, and the input requirements are too cumbersome. If you only want to use one online streaming music service and automated recommendations and perpetual playlists are things you fancy, Beats completely falls short here.
3. Recent releases and what my friends are listening to
Rdio has a whole dedicated section to what’s just been released, what’s receiving heavy rotation among my friends, and what’s currently popular on the service. I can even dig deeper and find out what’s popular in my local area.
Beats has a social element, but it doesn’t appear to be working correctly in the iPhone app.3 This appears to be an unfinished, or simply unrefined, feature of the service, and one that will undoubtedly get better over time. That said, for now, discovery using what’s popular, what your friends are listening to, and what’s recently been released, is way better experience on Rdio.
4. My existing collection
Rdio has a great iTunes import feature, so anything in your iTunes library can be copied into your Rdio collection. If you’ve used Spotify, you can even import your Spotify collection into Rdio.
Right now, Beats has no method to import from existing music libraries. So while it offers the ability to randomly play what’s in your Beats collection, you have to actually build that collection up first. Depending on how big your collection is elsewhere, this may be a deal-breaker for you.
This is Beats Music’s bread-and-butter; Beats Music is built on, or marketed on, the idea that human-curated playlists are superior to what EchnoNest and similar engines can produce. In my experience, I don’t agree that’s necessarily the case, as I’ve discovered plenty of music I like through either method. However, Beats Music puts human-curated playlists front and center, and I can’t argue that this isn’t a valid form of music discovery.
The core of Beats music is playlists. After signing up for Beats Music, playlists are recommended based on artists and genres you’ve selected, and recommendations are further tweaked as you “heart” things. Simple recommendations are albums, but the more interesting recommendations are playlists of around 20 songs, often “essential” or “deep cut” playlists for a given artist. The playlists can be collaborations between artists, or “best of” playlists for a genre, or playlists created by guest celebrities. It’s really a rather good way to listen to popular music, but discovering unknown artists seems a bit more difficult than discovery through stations; certainly, you can get lost in the rabbit hole that is Beats Music’s playlists, but I’ve ultimately found the experience to feel limiting compared to what Rdio offers with stations.
When you search for a popular artist in Beats Music, you may see some playlists associated with the artist, like the aforementioned “essentials” playlist. Unfortunately, you won’t see all playlists containing a song from that artist, which would be a rather valuable discovery feature. Also, lesser known artists obviously won’t have an associated playlist, so you’re limited to listening to select songs or albums.
Rdio also has playlists, but they’re mostly user-defined and not vetted by Rdio, which means playlist quality tends to vary; some playlists will only have a couple songs in them, while others may be hundreds of songs long. Finding good playlists is up to the user, and because there are so many bad ones, it’s usually easier to stick to those created by accounts belonging to Rdio, labels, or organizations like Billboard.
Overall, the playlists featured in Beats Music is much better than what Rdio offers, but how much this matters to you depends on your listening habits. I tend to prefer stations to playlists, and for those few times I want a specific set of songs, I’m happy to spend a couple minutes searching for and subscribing to a playlist in Rdio.4
Designing a better service
It’s too bad there’s not one service that has all the strengths of both Rdio and Beats Music.5 However, I think losing curated playlists is easier to give up than losing stations.
Beats Music has a quirky design that works as a playlist generator, but that creates some obstacles as a result. Because hearting a song in Beats Music is global, if you unheart the same song in the future, it affects all your recommendations in Beats Music, not just in a particular playlist. This hearting/unhearting is what powers your personal recommendations.
This system feels cumbersome to me. I often find myself hearting a song, and then adding it to my collection as well. This two-step process seems redundant, and I feel Beats Music should assume that what’s in my collection is something I like (akin to hearting it). I could then further customize my recommendations by disliking a song on a global level.6
Rdio has less ground to make up to come to parity with Beats Music. Since Rdio already has playlists, all they would need to do is feature “Rdio approved” playlists to mimic what Beats Music is doing. The difficult part would be adding a global recommendation engine for these playlists, but if such recommendations were based on what’s in your Rdio collection, this might not be a huge undertaking, as it wouldn’t affect the existing interface.
Beats Music would have a harder time implementing Rdio/Spotify stations, if only because their curated playlists are how Beats Music is selling itself. That factor could be a limitation down the road, as I don’t see a good way to add EchoNest-style recommendations without removing focus from Beats Music’s foundation.
I’m fortunate to be on the three-month AT&T-sponsored Beats Music trial, so I plan to keep an eye on how the service improves before May. In the meantime however, I resubscribed to Rdio and moved it back to my iPhone’s homescreen. In short, I feel I’m getting better discovery results with Rdio, appreciate the stability of the iPhone app, and get artist results that are still missing in Beats Music.7
Later, after iTunes Radio came out making a Pandora subscription somewhat redundant (I was already an iTunes Match customer), and the developers of PandoraJam were sued by Pandora, I decided my love affair with Pandora would come to an end. ↩
Another of Pandora’s strengths, noticeably missing from the competition, is Pandora’s ability to allow a user to select multiple “seeds”. In other words, I can create a station with multiple influences considered (like two or more artists I like), instead of starting with only one and tweaking it over time. ↩
Followers and such don’t seem to show up correctly. ↩
Finding a solid workout playlist, for example, was worth it. ↩
More specifically, adding Beats Music’s curated playlists to Rdio. ↩
I unheart/thumbs-down a lot less than I do the opposite. A lot of songs I’m fairly neutral on, so a dislike button needn’t even be front and center. ↩
There are European songs/artists I listen to in Rdio that aren’t available in Beats Music. Further, some artists that were available in Beats Music (even if just as a listing) now seem to have disappeared. ↩