Swimming upstream

I can still remember being a vocal minority when music subscription services started to appear. I’d been a Napster user for a very long time – yes, all the way back to its dubious roots – so when it went legit, I was keen to give it a go. Bizarrely, back then there was an air of indignation at the prospect of essentially renting music – “But if I stop paying, I lose all my music” was the most common comment I received from friends and colleagues alike.

The thing I found strange was that many of these people happily subscribed to Sky every month, but saw no problem with the fact that they couldn’t watch all those TV shows if they stopped paying. Back then, people considered music to be something they owned, while TV was something they consumed, but things are very different today.

I’m not exactly sure when the shift happened, but today there’s no need to convince anyone of the merits of a music subscription service – it’s practically the norm. After all, why waste your time synchronising your own music collection when you can just access a cloud-based library with tens of millions of songs in it?

Up until earlier this year I remained a Napster user, partly because of the longevity of my association with the brand and partly because I was able to find certain tracks on Napster that weren’t available on other services. But the main reason that I stuck with Napster was the subscription plan, which blew every other option out of the water. For £4.99 I was getting unlimited streaming along with multi-room support via my Sonos system. On top of that I could download five MP3s free every month, essentially making the subscription fee almost free!

But then Rhapsody bought Napster, and although Napster UK remained immune to Rhapsody’s influence for a long time, back in spring the parent company made some changes. As a result my subscription was simply cancelled, and I was informed that if I wished to continue using the service I had to switch to a new plan. Unfortunately the new £5 plan no longer comes with five free MP3 downloads, and also won’t allow me to stream Napster to more than one room via Sonos – not exactly an upgrade.

So, I decided to stick to my own music library for a while, which is made all the more easy thanks to iTunes Match – being able to pull any and all of my music from the cloud when I want it is pretty cool. But what I liked most about Napster was the ability to listen to new stuff for a while before deciding whether or not to buy it, so I decided to sign up to Spotify.

Of course deciding to sign up to Spotify and actually doing so proved to be poles apart. I assumed – though clearly naïvely – that all I needed to do was head over to the Spotify website, create an account and start listening. What I found was that I wasn’t allowed to create a Spotify account at all.

Once upon a time you could do exactly that – register with Spotify, choose a plan and listen to music. Now, however, the only way sign up for Spotify is through Facebook, and I neither have nor want a Facebook account. So that’s one less customer for Spotify, because I’m not going to sign up to Facebook in order to use it.

As luck would have it, the day after I turned my back on Spotify’s exclusionist policy, an email landed in my inbox from Rdio. I hadn’t played with Rdio before, but a friend (yep that’s you Gordon) had kept telling me that I should give it a try, so that’s exactly what I did.

I’ve been using Rdio for the past week, and so far I’m really liking it. The subscription plans are par for the course - £5 for basic streaming through a browser or desktop app, or £10 for streaming, mobile device usage and multi-room streaming via systems like Sonos. But it’s the Collection feature on Rdio that sets it apart.

When you install the Rdio app, you’re asked if you want to add your iTunes library to your Collection. By doing this, you’ve essentially got your entire music library already laid out in Rdio, and you can just keep adding to your collection day by day, week by week. The desktop and mobile apps are both pretty sound, and the iPhone app is happy to be controlled via a Bluetooth connection in the car.

Rdio doesn’t explicitly state what bit-rate is streams the music at, which is slightly annoying – the FAQ just says that “high-quality streams” are employed over Wi-Fi and for tracks synched onto mobile devices. That said, everything sounds acceptably good, especially when pumped through my Arcam rPAC.

Right now Rdio is doing its job very well, giving me an extensive music library that I can enjoy via my computers, smartphone, tablet or Sonos system, but that’s exactly the job Napster was doing for me until a few months ago. I guess I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that Rdio doesn’t choose to affiliate itself with Facebook or get bought by Rhapsody – here’s hoping.