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Rdio redesigns its service to emphasize radio and recommendations

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Rdio, the best music-streaming service that (statistically) you’re not using, is unveiling a smart redesign Thursday morning aimed at helping you discover new music faster. Free users will see the web and mobile apps place near-total emphasis on Rdio’s ad-supported radio stations, including more than 60 programmed by new human curators, while seeing fewer pleas to upgrade to the premium version. And all users will have access to the service’s useful new "Home" feed, which offers Facebook-like stories about trending and notable artists, songs, and albums. (It’s rolling out to users over the next couple of weeks.)

Scroll through your Home feed and you’ll find songs your friends are listening to in real time, albums that are trending in your network, and albums from artists that you like that you haven’t listened to yet. Free users will see stories related to stations, which they can listen to without paying the $9.99 a month that gets you unlimited on-demand streaming. The first story in the feed is always "keep listening," which shows you the most recent things you’ve listened to on the service so you can easily pick up where you left off. There are around 20 other types of stories, and Rdio plans to add more over time. "You have a personalized music magazine," says Chris Becherer, senior vice president for product at Rdio.

"It's your personalized music magazine."

Rdio has lagged behind competitors like Pandora, which has 76.4 million users, and Spotify, which has more than 40 million. (Rdio will say only that it has users "in the millions" and that the number of registered users doubled in the past year.) It’s counting on free radio stations to boost listenership, and as part of that is expanding its radio service today to 20 countries. That’s a broader geographical reach than Pandora, which can be found only in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, but a narrower one than Spotify, which is available in more than 60 countries. (Rdio's paid service is available in 60 countries.) But Spotify’s focus is unlimited on-demand streaming, and Rdio believes it can find its niche as the service that does radio and on-demand equally well.

That all strikes me as wishful thinking, but I intend to enjoy Rdio for as long as it lasts. The company’s designs tend to lead the industry — its frosted slide-out panels found their way into iOS 7 — and the new look manages to simplify it even further. The confusingly similar "heavy rotation" and "top charts" have been merged into a single section called "Trending," and the bulky right-hand rail that showed you what your friends are listening to on the web has been shrunken down into a section called "People" in the main menu. The concept of defined "collections," which tried and failed to re-create the feel of an old record collection online, has been replaced by the more easily understood "Favorites." You can favorite artists, songs, albums, and playlists just by clicking a heart button that is now everywhere on Rdio. The resulting section is a list of stuff you like, in reverse chronological order from when you liked it.

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As with any redesign, some users are likely to be upset that a favorite feature or way of doing things has disappeared or changed. But in a day of testing, I found Rdio as intuitive as ever. The question now is whether the company will be able to promote these changes beyond its relatively small user base. Marketing has always been Rdio’s biggest weakness; the company says its recently hired chief operating officer, Mark Ruxin, plans to ramp up efforts significantly. Here’s hoping: with Spotify ascendant and Beats Music absorbed into Apple, Rdio may not have many more notes to play.