I spent the majority of the 199os, my teenage years, in record stores. After school and every weekend, when I wasn’t bagging groceries at the local supermarket, I was digging through the racks at CD shops. If it doesn’t go without saying, I wasn’t particularly cool.
But the thing I loved most about record stores wasn’t so much the buying, after all I was on a bag boy’s budget, but the browsing — scanning the racks, picking out CDs, flipping to the back to read the track listing, and carrying several albums around the store until I finally decided which to buy. At home, I was well on my way to amassing a record store-like collection of my own. And there, too, I enjoyed browsing, reorganizing, and, of course, listening.
When I bought my first iPod, I found the switch from physical to digital surprisingly easy because iTunes operated on the collection model. I still geek out remembering the nights I spent importing CDs into my iTunes library. Once my music was all digital, I obsessively added cover art, fixed metadata, and giddily flipped through my albums using iTunes’ Cover Flow feature. Truly, Apple understood the way obsessive music collectors like me wanted to interact with our music libraries.
The iTunes model, however, is aging and most of the record stores I frequented as a youth have gone out of business. Today, newer cloud-based music services like Pandora and Spotify make the idea of a music collection seem quaint, or worse, archaic. And they are changing the way people think about their music. I’m never more aware of this than when the college students I teach talk about their relationship with music. Even the most enthusiastic among them, those who would have been collectors in the ’90s, don’t own their music. They subscribe to Spotify and assemble playlists of favorite tracks.
And Apple has taken notice of this new landscape and is working to accommodate. When iOS 7 arrives in the fall, it may claim Pandora or Spotify users with its iRadio feature. But for those of us old school music collectors, who still curate and obsess over our digital collections — making absolutely certain that we keep multiple backups on hard drives and in the cloud though we know this is completely unnecessary — the playlist model of music absorption is deeply unsatisfying. I subscribed to Spotify for about a year because I wanted the ability to sample new albums before I commit to them, but I’d still eventually commit. Spotify let me search their extensive library and star or make a playlist out of an album, but I couldn’t really possess it. In this way, iTunes and Amazon MP3 still got my cash even though I was also paying to subscribe to Spotify.
I’ve long advocated that there was a gap to fill here — a subscription service that let me at least feel like I owned the music that I’m actually just renting. I watched Apple’s WWDC keynote with the hope that, in addition to iRadio, they’d announce a subscription service that let me merge the cloud-based music with my extensive MP3 library, but no dice. And so, with that hope deflated, I went looking elsewhere.
Before Spotify launched in the U.S., when it was still a much hyped European service, Rdio was promoted by tech writers as a kind of holdover until the service we were all waiting for, Spotify, arrived. I tried Rdio back then, but I wasn’t quite ready for a cloud-based music service; when my free trial month expired, I deleted the app. However, after jumping on the Spotify bandwagon and using it for a year, I came around to the concept, even if I found that particular service unsatisfying. So I decided to give Rdio another shot, and here, finally, I found something closer to the middle ground I’d been looking for.
The first thing Rdio does upon opening is ask to take a peak at your iTunes collection. It scans your library and matches it with its own extensive, cloud-based collection. Spotify does this as well, but unlike Spotify, Rdio expects that you’ll actually want to browse your own collection. You can organize your music by artists in a sidebar, similar to iTunes, and sort your collection by artist, album, recently added, or play count. Instead of Spotify’s text-based list of songs, Rdio organizes your library into albums and displays the artwork, again more like iTunes. Also, Rdio’s iOS app offers access to your collection on the go, a feature that is conspicuously absent from Spotify’s mobile offering. These may seem like slight differences, but they reveal a completely different paradigm — one that recognizes that nagging desire to collect music. Rdio even organizes the collection under the heading “Your Music.”
And truly it feels like my music. When I come across a new record, I can listen to it first, and then, if I like it, I can add it to my collection. This provides at least the feeling that I own it. As an added bonus, Rdio also happens to sport a better design than Spotify, opting for a cleaner look and a white color palette over Spotify’s text-heavy layout and dark background.
Of course, Rdio isn’t perfect. When it finished scanning my library, it informed me that there were nearly 5,000 tracks that it couldn’t match; these therefore either don’t appear in my Rdio collection or show up as “Unavailable.” And there’s always that persistent fear that if Rdio closes up shop, it will take the music I’ve collected with it. But that’s unavoidable in this brave new world of cloud-based music services.
It’s taken me years, but I’ve finally acknowledged that there is no longer any reason to own music. But I still want to collect it. Rdio lets me do this in a way that Spotify doesn’t while also allowing me to listen to entire albums without buying them, a feature that iTunes doesn’t offer.
We’ve by no means reached the end of the evolution of cloud-based music services, and I fear that the trend is making music collection obsolete. Maybe collectors like me will come around to the new model, but in the meantime, Rdio lets us straddle the ever expanding gap between the record collection and the cloud.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is the author of Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity Is Changing Pop Culture for the Better and the editor of Patrolmag.com.
Also by Jonathan D. Fitzgerald: How to Write a Book Without Paper