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April 19, 2011 • Music Diary, Reviews

Music Diary Reviews: Rdio and MOG are Viable Spotify Alernatives … NOW

I have spoken about just how great I found Spotify during a trial period, but while we wait for the inevitable launch in the US, I have checked out two alternatives: Rdio and MOG. And while I’ll likely share more details as I dig deeper in the coming weeks, let me just say that with a few caveats these excellent services have me saying ‘Spotify Who?’

Common Ground

Rdio and MOG, similar to Spotify, are cloud-based music streaming services. Each offers a subscription-based approach that allows you unlimited music streaming for a monthly fee. Each also has a tiered approach – for a lower cost you can get web browser-only service, but for a higher cost you can get access on mobile devices. This cost structure is also similar to Spotify as well. Both offer free trial that also allow use on mobile devices with all features enabled. Each allows you to download tracks to mobile devices for offline use, though how they work is a bit different.

All of the services have broad libraries featuring music from all of the ‘major’ US labels which also carry many so-called ‘indie’ labels under their umbrella. Each has at least 8 million songs available, not as large as the ‘for-purchase’ libraries of iTunes or Amazon, but still a decent library – even for someone like me who regularly buys music made in quantities of thousands (not tens of thousands). Finally, there was another service ‘ThumbPlay’, but that got absorbed into megalith industry tool Clear Channel … so much for competition.

Rdio

Here is the description from their site:

Rdio is a new social music service, founded by Janus Friis with Niklas Zennström.

We’re making a music service that takes the work out of deciding what to play next — follow friends and people with great taste in music, get inspired by what they’re playing, and listen to their playlists.

With Rdio’s mobile apps, music on your computer and mobile phone is finally connected without needing a cable. Collections and playlists are instantly updated and you can sync music and listen, even when you’re offline.

I spent a few weeks fiddling around with their free 7-day trial using different email accounts, then signing up for real for a paid ‘premium’ account for $9.99 a month. That gives me unlimited everything – web, smartphone, iPod, iPad and so on.

Typically you’ll hear folks talk about the Rdio ‘learning curve’, how it isn’t immediately obvious what to do, but once you figure it out things work great. I didn’t have a major problem – though I think the fact that there is no ‘search’ displayed when you start the mobile app is an odd choice. Instead you get a ‘heavy rotation’ list, suggesting a bunch of pop music I really don’t care about. Only through a non-obvious drop-down menu or using the Android system menu can you uncover more options. The iOS version is better, with a search bar at the top of the screen.

But one cool thing is that on my Mac it remembered what I was playing the last time I logged in … which was a month ago since I tend to use the mobile apps! One other cool thing is that when you search an artist, you get an integrated list of top albums and top songs and can choose either path.

To try out the ‘save to collection’ feature, I selected the Mary Halvorson Trio’s ‘dragon’s head’ recording. It saved it to my collection on the Mac, and then when I went to Rdio on my PC, it was there! But wait … it gets better! Then I chose ‘sync to mobile’, and then when I went on to my Droid Pro and iPod Touch, it was there! Later on, I was in my car and plugged in my iPod Touch and played the music without issue!

I have also played around a bit with Rdio on my Roku, which works great and integrates with my library and collections, but honestly haven’t used it very much because we tend to only gather up in the kitchen area outside of holidays so it will be a while before I get to make use of that functionality.

Finally, Rdio recently launched a Mac OS X native app, which brings everything you need to one place in a way that I find works better than playing off the web browser. I read a review that called it ‘iTunes for the Cloud’ … and that is a pretty good description.

Also, it immediately integrates whatever it recognized from my iTunes library – so as a test I headed to ‘collection’ and found Anthony Braxton’s Solo (Koln) 1978. This is a pretty ‘out there’ recording, but it was there thanks to being part of the Sony BMG catalog, and sounded great – without taking up any space on my phone!

The biggest annoyance – ‘Preview Only’ and ‘Unavailable’. In an apparent concession to record companies, Rdio has songs that even by paying $9.99 per month you can only hear a 30 second preview! Worse still, even when I own the music and have it on my iPod (Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion is an example), I STILL only get the option to preview. Some music shows up in searches but is ‘unavailable’ to play. Fortunately these are rare occurrences.

But the positives far outweigh the negatives – I have been able to easily pull up music to check out, grab stuff I didn’t have on my iTunes library, listen to old stuff from my wife’s and my memories that we want to hear once more but not own. Some of those are things that record companies hate about these services, but I am glad that I am able to legally listen to the music I choose without actually having to buy it and still know the artists are getting compensation!

Am I getting $9.99 a month of value here? Absolutely!

Where to Subscribe: Rdio.com

Price: $9.99 / month

What I Like: Full 1-week trial; solid music selection; will scan your music for additions to your ‘collection’, easy to add to collection for offline listening; all artist info integrated.

What Needs Improvement: ‘Learning Curve’; ‘social’ aspects are fragmented and not well-integrated

Head to Rdio.com and check it out.

MOG

Here is the description from their site:

MOG Inc. is a next-generation music media company founded in June 2005 by David Hyman, former CEO for Gracenote. MOG has one simple goal: to perfect your music-listening experience.

MOG’s all-you-can-eat, on-demand listening service provides access to a deep library of over 10 million songs and a million albums through its mobile apps on iPhone and Android, as well as on the Web and streaming entertainment devices for TV. It surpasses all other music subscription services in its ease-of-use, discovery features and audio quality.

I was contacted by MOG after they picked up on one of my articles on streaming music and offered me a trial account, and naturally I said ‘YES’! My experience has been fairly positive. The user interface is clean and direct on both Android and iOS, and immediately invite you to search or browse as well as looking at charts that mean nothing to me. Their search results give you several options – Albums, Songs, Playlists, ‘Radio’ and Similar Artists.

Hitting Albums will bring up a similar list to Rdio – same for songs, though they are separate. In each case they are arranged alphabetically rather than by popularity. For an artists with loads of albums and compilations, this can be a bit annoying, but since there is a slider on the side it isn’t a big deal.

What IS a big deal is that rather than ‘Preview Only’, MOG simply leaves out a bunch of tracks. Take the Pat Metheny Orchestrion example – when I choose ‘play album’, it starts with Entry Point, the second song. It totally skips the title track and centerpiece of the recording. The same thing happened to me last week when I really wanted to hear the song Django by the Modern Jazz Quartet. I queued up the album and waited for the song to arrive … it never did.

But those issues aside, there is a reason my family has completely abandoned Pandora and Slacker in favor of MOG – playlists. These are user-created lists of songs that will include something by the artist you searched for. For example, I wrote about how I used MOG to pull up a 90’s playlist for the whole family, and it has been great for pulling up pop/rock stuff from the 70’s and 80’s as well. Because it is user-based, you can get some really great (and really awful) combinations – but they are all worth exploring.

Similarly well done are the ‘similar artists’ – this is a great way to find new music that is similar to someone you already love. You can jump immediately to the new artists and start listening by song or album … or even a playlist including that artists!

I have read about complaints that the MOG mobile apps as ‘buggy’ … and I have no idea. I am not a fan of the overly red UI colors, preferring the more subdued palette Rdio uses. But beyond that I have no complaints about the mobile app. I found it easy to use and navigate – when I wanted to download something for offline listening when I knew I’d be in a ‘no signal’ area for a while, I simply went to the album, chose ‘download’ from the Options menu, and it happened in the background even as I played from my queue.

But even as I mention that, I am again annoyed at the ‘no show’ songs. I used as a test in this case Moving Pictures (2011 Remaster) from Rush, and for Rdio I got all 7 songs … but MOG skipped The Camera Eye for some reason without any notification. By now I have decided that having ‘preview only’ or ‘unavailable’ is much better than thinking you are getting the entire thing but missing something.

Yet nothing compares with the missing Django! I understand that certain compromises and deals are made between services and publishers, and things held back to entice purchases. But imagine grabbing the Beatles’ Please Please Me and finding out it was missing … Please Please Me! Silly and annoying. What is correct? I don’t know, because certainly publishers don’t want a pop-up saying ‘due to Sony being Sony, we can’t let you play the most popular song from the most popular album from this artist’. But I think the ‘preview only’ or ‘unavailable’ is ultimately a better compromise.

MOG offers a 14-day free trial period with all features enabled, which is a more reasonable period than Rdio’s 7-day trial. It might seem trivial, but I ended up using different email addresses to lengthen my Rdio trial before signing up for a paid membership. With MOG’s two weeks that wouldn’t have been an issue.

It should be clear by now that there were features I liked better in MOG, but also things that really annoyed me! It is a robust service that allows you to stream loads of music, has great playlist and social integration, easy downloading for offline listening and more. But the ‘drinking from the firehose’ search, and particularly the amount of tracks that were simply missing during my limited time testing the service were both annoying.

But I am definitely not ready to give up on MOG – they have tons of music and great options. It is perfect for an all-family system, as everyone can find exactly what they want and we can mix it up in our queue.

Where to Subscribe: MOG.com

Price: $9.99 / month

What I Like: Full 2-week trial; solid music selection; great social integration; easy to download for offline listening.

What Needs Improvement: Too many missing songs from major works; artist view could use more options

Head to MOG.com and check it out.

Spotify

While Rdio and MOG offer great services that they are updating frequently, Spotify is moving in the other direction. They have already peeled back features in their free and low-price offerings in an attempt to appease the major labels as they try to spread outside of Europe. Last week on their blog they unveiled even more restrictions and changes:

So it’s vital that we continue offering an on-demand free service to you and millions more like you, but to make that possible we have to put some limits in place going forward.

Here’s how the changes will work:

New Spotify users will be able to enjoy our unrivalled free service as it is today for the first 6 months.
As of May 1st, any user who signed up to the free service on or before November 1st 2010 will be able to play each track for free up to a total of 5 times. Users who signed up after the beginning of November will see these changes applied 6 months after the time they set up their Spotify account.
Additionally, total listening time for free users will be limited to 10 hours per month after the first 6 months. That’s equivalent to around 200 tracks or 20 albums.

The changes we’re having to make will mainly affect heavier Spotify Free and Open users, as most of you use Spotify to discover music – on average over 50 new tracks per month, even after a year. Plus, the average user won’t reach the limit on plays for 7 out of 10 tracks, after a year of using Spotify. For those of you using Spotify to find new tracks to enjoy and share with friends, these changes shouldn’t get in the way of you doing that. Rest assured that we’ll continue to bring you the biggest and most diverse music catalogue available.

For anyone who thinks they might reach these limits, we hope you’ll consider checking out our Unlimited and Premium services, neither of which will be affected, plus we have a 7-day free trial for Spotify Premium that we’d love you to try. Throughout May, we’ll also have a pretty nice 30-day free trial for Spotify Premium – more details on that in the next few days.

That is a lot of change! As I said, the service has been slowly peeling off features – it is hard to believe how much has changed since I first had the chance to look at it on a EU colleague’s laptop a while back! And everything is focused on moving users to Premium or Unlimited modes.

For reference, Spotify has four modes: Premium, Unlimited, Open & Free. Premium costs $9.99 has full access to everything, including mobile apps, offline listening, no ads, etc. Unlimited costs $4.99 and offers ad-free unlimited use from a PC/Mac computer. Open is free and ad-supported, no offline, no mobile apps, limited hours per month, limited listens to same song. Free requires an invite and is the same as Open but without monthly limits (well, used to be).

I can see why they need to make these changes for the record companies – the free service is working great for ~90% of those with Spotify Accounts! 10% conversion to a $4.99 or $9.99 plan just isn’t enough! They need to make sure that they find a balance between allowing free music discovery and making sure users bump against the walls frequently enough to make them want to get a full account (but not so much they return to rampant piracy!).

Conclusions

For a couple of years folks have seen Spotify as a sort of ‘holy grail’ for cloud-based music streaming – combining your music with streamed versions of millions of songs from every major label, allowing you to have a huge music library at your fingertips at all times! The problem (as always) was money – Spotify helped with piracy in the EU, but that success only shifted folks from piracy to Spotify Free.

Spotify has converted less than 10% of users to any sort of paid account, which is a problem for music publishers. Also problematic is the low conversion of listens to sales (you can buy music easily within Spotify) … I think part of the early appeal to record labels was that people would find & share, listen and then BUY the music. Since that didn’t happen, coupled with the low conversion to paid membership, Spotify had to make changes.

But as a result, when Spotify lands in the US it will have a very limited Free service, with everything else basically the same as MOG and Rdio. Well, not everything – the Spotify app is better than the Rdio app thus far, but Rdio keeps improving theirs and the Mac version I downloaded recently brings things much closer! MOG and Rdio also each have Google Chrome apps, which run wonderfully in the web browser.

I belabor the Spotify details for a purpose: many folks have been waiting for Spotify to land. To them I say – get on with your life! The ‘premium’ versions of Rdio and MOG contain pretty much everything Spotify has to offer (their social aspects still need time and work), and they are available NOW! By the time Spotify lands in North America, I doubt I will even notice unless they have come up with some major new value-added proposition.

Which do I recommend between Rdio and MOG? It is a tough call and depends upon HOW and WHY you listen to music. I use the social aspects less than others (like my kids) so my inclination is towards Rdio whereas they definitely prefer MOG. Each has strengths and weaknesses I have described. Both have solid web sites, mobile apps and Rdio also has a great Mac native app.

In my opinion, the only way to lose is by continuing to wait around for Spotify to arrive. Spotify was so 2009 … welcome yourself to 2011 with Rdio and MOG.

6 Responses to " Music Diary Reviews: Rdio and MOG are Viable Spotify Alernatives … NOW "

  1. Phonelicious says:

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  4. […] month Spotify announced several changes that were intended to move more regular users off of the free plan and into the paid […]

  5. […] just wrote a huge article about Rdio and MOG, and have covered Spotify quite a bit. When you look at the 9 million Spotify users in the EU as […]

  6. […] I mentioned in my review of Rdio and MOG, both are excellent services and each provides plenty of value for the $10 monthly fee. Yet when it […]

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