Dear Rdio I love you but

Aaron Schildkrout
Nov 17, 2015 · 9 min read

(Instagram was first in this “I love you but” series.)

Today Rdio announced that it was hanging up its cleats on Pandora’s door.

To the Rdio team — you who must have lived through such a whirlwind of ups and downs these past years — thank you for your work and noble attempt. I loved every minute of it.

I know economies need businesses to be lasting institutions. But now businesses are so often just events: they occur, they delight, they provoke — and then they dissipate. We participate in the theatre of it. I was a glad participant in Rdio’s lengthy and ultimately failed endeavor to be the best of digital music.

Today when I read the death knell, I melancholically dug up a draft of an article I had been working on about a year ago (before I started my current job.) I’m publishing it here tonight, in draft form, with no edits (not worth editing.)

I’m a little worried this is going to seem insensitive. I don’t intend this at all; I have the utmost respect for Rdio’s efforts (all the more so for my own long toil at a startup.) Chasing human desire (e.g. business) is almost always an arduous, meandering journey; so much luck involved. So there’s no judgment here. I’m publishing this because there are maybe a few thoughts worth sharing here that I’ll likely never share in another form if I don’t hit publish on this tonight — and, more importantly, because perhaps this will spur Pandora to do something cool with the Rdio assets.

Here’s the draft, again, unedited from my phone’s notes app — so pls excuse typos and so on//

Dear Rdio I love you but

Rdio is my music. It’s the soundtracked vessel for my life and the lives of many others.

And I adore Rdio, specifically. Since I first wrote about Rdio nearly two years ago, much has improved. Most noticeably, navigation and general topology have been cleaned up; there is a new /home experience that’s among the internet’s boldest and most successful efforts at a dynamic, semi-curated discovery experience; and there is more wonderful music, including some exclusive selections, in the catalog.

And what’s always been good about Rdio is mostly still good: graceful and intelligent UI, an album-centric focus that reflects a deep understanding of how musicians actually create music, an implicit trust in our DIY willingness to curate our own musical worlds, and a general balm of cool.

But…candidly Rdio is losing to Spotify and Soundcloud, badly — and to have any chance at long-term relevance a lot of work is needed. Speaking as tottering but fierce loyalist, here are some suggestions…

1. Master the Basics. Triple your investment in QA, Testing, and Monitoring because right now the app just doesn’t work very well. I’m not exaggerating when I say that that I run into slowness, frozen screens, crashes, etc in at least 30% (until recently it was more like 70%) of my sessions. It’s not only me — I’ve asked numerous friends and they complain vigorously of the same issues.

Current bugs seem to be located around repeat favoriting, extensive scrolling, extensive opening and closing of different ‘cards,’ audio changes in a session like repeated headphone in/out moves, online/offline shifts, and multi-tasking.

Perhaps this only happens to people with many thousands of favorite songs. Or maybe it’s just New Yorkers who pop in and out of the subway all day (a lot of the errors seem related to ungraceful handling of network quality changes — I suffer less now that I live in SF.) Or maybe it’s just punishment for occasionally listening to…Tweezer Reprise? Seriously though, this is unacceptable. You need 99% bug free uptime. Fix it, or your users will simply migrate away, past the bonds of loyalty.

Enough of your users really care that you could easily create a pre-release alpha testing group for all new builds; I’d shake to report issues all day long. The basics need to be in place for the shine to shimmer.

2. Fix Syncing. Perhaps I experience this more than the next person because I frequently ride the wifi-less subway, fly on airplanes a lot, and have a ton of synced songs…but the way syncing works now is ludicrous. Don’t check all songs before starting a sync. Allow me to prioritize the queue manually. And more aggressively sync when I’m on wifi, without asking me. In summary: getting a new phone shouldn’t feel like an epic musical tragedy.

3. Fix Search. Search is clearly constructed on some archaic technology. It needs fixing. It should show related results, allow for spelling errors, provide auto-fill, auto-update as I type, etc. My searches should also be saved for subsequent searches so I don’t have to retype so much (I have probably searched Kidnap Kid to see when he’s gonna do another Alphaville like 85 times.)

4. Honor my Listening and Favoriting History. Right now, with the exception of ‘Keep Listening’ this is buried in my profile. I’d like a timeline view of everything I’ve listened to and favorited (and the same for everyone else on Rdio) allowing me to see what I was into last week, last month, last year. Imagine it like the temporal equivalent to the current alphabetical right-side jump-to navigation.

You could link to this from the Keep Listening area — it would help to address the growing problem, inherent in all streaming apps, of a growing favorites list that makes it harder and harder to navigate to your actual faves.

5. Help me Curate my Near-Term Listening. Make the ‘play later’ feature way smarter, allowing me to easily find this queue in the expanded play bar area, actively curate and organize it on the go, and then save that playlist into an actual playlist with one tap.

The most annoying thing here is my inability to quickly curate a mini-mix. Specifically, if I play one song from an album view the assumption is that I want to hear the rest of the album, too. I think the best solution for this is super easy tap hold and drag queue management.

Additionally — I don’t always want to listen to my play later list. Sometimes I want auto play to take over after the currently selected song. Give me this option.

If you fixed these play later and queuing pieces, then I’d use this feature as a sort of ‘try it out’ area. I used to use Favorites for this, before it was called favorites, but now I hesitate to do that with new albums. I think this might be partly just semantics and partly the accumulated volume of favorites. Either way, I want a place to put stuff I don’t like yet but might like after trying, like Dusk at Cubist Castle.

6. Playlists. Make it simple to create playlists out of my listening history. I’ll curate an evening’s music on the fly and the next day want to save an edited version of what I payed as a playlist. This is a specific use case but a huge one for me, I want a UI option optimized for it.

7. Surface Recommendations where I Want Them. Above all I want to see similar music (people who liked this also liked this… / Also by this artist ) on the screens where I see music most often — album and song pages and in the actual player queue. This need to be designed so they don’t get stale and so there is minimal repeat across different artists.

8. Make Stations Smarter and More Personalized. I’m imaging hyper specific — eg Rainy Sunday Morning — stations built based on my listening history. Then add a Stations for Now area on /home that uses data about the time of day, the weather, and my listening history to always play the ideal right-now-soundtrack. (Obviously: sharing.)

9. Auto-create Playlists from my Play History. Easiest version: top 10 for every month. Super shareable, wonderful to browse. [Mood thing? Find better solution.]

10. Replace the Recommendations Area— or Delete it. Right now it feels like one idea (recs based on stuff I’ve been listening to) — which is cool but almost never applicable to my current mood and desire. It feels very limited, almost like a placeholder. And redundant with /home. I would replace it with a recommendation tool that lets me use Rdio’s intelligence more actively — asking for recs based on mood, similarity, genre, output type (playlist, station, song recs, album recs), social factors, etc — essentially a dynamic merging of search and your recommendation algorithm.

11. Fix Social. I don’t necessarily trust the people I follow. The social recs are almost always pretty random and non-compelling. I think what I’d way rather is genre experts who provide recs based on their area of expertise — like I would love to know what rdio’s Jazz Council thinks I should be listening to.

Then for my friends and people I’m vaguely interested in, I think I want just a smarter activity feed — a sort of highlight reel. Which leads me to my next point…

12. A ‘Yeah!’ button. Like a thumbs up that I use to prop a song into my followers’ worlds: right now I’m listening to Stranger in a Room and really digging it and I want a way to share that sad exuberance. This is the right signal — as opposed to the self-fulfilling trending of the first song of each big new album.

13. Create Musical Experiences. I would like to see a way stronger investment in original content. A few obv ideas for that…
//Local shows / local artists — I want to know what’s hit it in Atlanta before ILoveMakonnen hits the charts.
//Young artists
//New and unique collaborations??[come up with some better stuff]
//Best of soundcloud

14. Buy Pitchfork and Double Down on Content. Rdio plus Pitchfork is a way way cooler company. Music content embedded in my mobile experience would massively increase my engagement time and I think could be included in non-distracting, additive ways. I’d like to see smart album reviews, career overviews of specific artists, video content of key historic shows, interactive mobile timeline views of their histories, thoughtful interviews and genre trend pieces. All with music discovery genuinely embedded throughout.

15. Personal Curator. Create a subscription add-on that’s a paid personal music curator, someone who interviews me about what I want to be cultivating in my musical experiences and curates playlists for me with some commentary interlaced about the songs. This isn’t a big idea but it’d be cool and revenue generating.

16. Live Stations. I want to listen to what Kanye is listening to, right now. Build live social stations, with some celebrity involvement, so I can have this kind of experience. Imagine a Friday night where I can tune into a live station of someone I like — friend or celeb — along with thousands of others. It’s live DJ radio, social, across space, for our time.

17. Simultaneous Listening. Facilitate simultaneous listening on two devices. The most obvious use case is headphones-in jogging with my girl friend. We want exact simultaneity. I think this would be really cool, and differentiating. Probably really hard and not worth it.

18. Platform. Open the Rdio API and make rdio the canonical musical platform for developers — and so create large new distribution opportunities and the awesome features I want. I would happily try out mini apps inside the rdio app that promised things like my mood-based playlist idea. I would also use rdio to authenticate with other music apps as I sort of do now on Sonos. This seems like ripe territory for a challenge to Spotify.

19. Soundcloud. Push for Soundcloud integration. Allow me to surface soundcloud tracks inside rdio but in a way that solves Soundcloud’s significant organizational challenges. This would be a huge win.

20. Pure Fun: let me turn off the vocals and sing karaoke. lol.

Little things to find a place for above:
* Add my new favorites to the home screen
* Don’t turn off repeat if I go from offline to online
* Make it easier online to see what year the song is from
* Show more than ten albums in the keep listening area
* The list versus thumbnail view is currently determined by what I’m looking at — for instance in favorites overview I have to scroll through large thumbnails. Make thumbnail v list a viewing option on each applicable page so I can decide whether I want that deep visual experience or just the efficiency of text.
* Refresh trending more often. Everything gets stale.

[Add conclusion later after fixing this mess]

w. love — and always rooting for Rdio //Aaron

Aaron Schildkrout

Written by

Entrepreneur, Product Thinker, and Writer. Currently Head of Growth Platform at Uber.