March 28, 2011

What iTunes Needs to Take on Spotify, Rdio & Google

Ever since I gained early access to Spotify in late 2009, I've practically abandoned iTunes for purchasing music. A once-addicted iTunes user who racked up thousands of paid downloads, the only time I ever launch the multipurpose entertainment application these days is to synchronize iOS apps to the iPod Touch, or do a futile search of its TV library to see if Season 5 of Dexter has shown up (it hasn't). But with the widespread expectation that iTunes will eventually launch in the cloud alongside a streaming subscription option, the update has the potential to directly take on Spotify before the fledgling service gets its US land legs, leaping well ahead of Rdio in brand recognition, and doing battle with the still unavailable Google Music - whenever that arrives.

For digital music connoisseurs, the benefits to all these interesting players vying for our business is that we will have more sources for good content on practically every device, and for the most part, at prices that make sense. The availability of competition ensures market rates will be driven down to the point of affordability for most, especially the ardent fans who absolutely "must" have every new album from favorite artists. That the companies are taking different approaches to the market also ensures we'll have a choice of how we want to consume our music - mobile, desktop, a la carte, subscription, or any other way.

iTunes Previews a new Tiesto Album for Purchase (No Streaming)

iTunes' market weight is tremendous. It has been widely rumored they are using their muscle to scare labels away from joining forces with Spotify, withholding artists' positions on highly visible pages within the store that have significant impact. The service, once spartan in terms of catalog, has grown to carry both new releases from practically everyone to deep catalogs from those long since gone. But in the 8 years the store has been open, a few things have been consistent - including the idea that customers want to "own" their music, not rent it, and subscription plans are nowhere to be seen. This has led startups like Spotify and Rdio to become more fashionable alternatives to savvy listeners - and these listeners are both loud and loyal.

Rdio Also Previews the Same Tiesto Album for Streaming

Assuming that iTunes, Spotify, Rdio and Google Music all offer comparable pricing, around $9.99 a month for unlimited play, as both Spotify and Rdio do now, the question for which service makes the most sense hinges on a few major features, namely:

1) A deep catalog of artists and songs

One of the most impressive things about Spotify has been my ability to search for practically any song or artist and find the right answer, often along with a number of remixes for the specific track, or inclusions in compilations. Searching across Rdio shows that in most cases, the catalog is on par with that of Spotify, which makes sense if both firms have executed deals with the same music labels. Spotify seems to have more older albums from artists, and doesn't suffer from restrictions I often bumped into with Rdio regarding availability of full-length streaming in my region.

iTunes Displaying a Nirvana Box Set

In order for iTunes in the cloud to compete, they need to debut with their full catalog, not a trimmed version of options (like they did with the Apple TV 2).

2) Fast access to new releases

If I see a new album is out from my favorite artist, my first stop is to find it on Spotify. If it's there, I can be streaming the new album immediately, or saving it to my playlists. I even have a playlist just for new albums, so I can add entire albums and delete them after listening to the tracks enough times. iTunes will need to match or exceed the speed of competitors to make the service my first stop.

Spotify Showing the Same Nirvana Box Set

3) High quality integration on mobile

It sounds silly to mention this for the company that brought us the iPod, but for iTunes to be a win for me again, it needs to be cross-platform for mobile operating systems. Spotify is available on both iOS and Android, while Rdio is developing for iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone 7. What do you think the chance is of iTunes coming to Windows Phone 7 soon?

4) Zero buffering

Once a song is streaming on Spotify, it's almost magic to click at any point in the song and have it pick up. After so many different services lag after one moves within the song, the instant gratification is welcome. iTunes has always had high quality with the service being download-centric, and I would hope their cloud could keep up.

Playing Rihanna's S&M On Rdio

5) Social integration and Sharing

Ping is not the social network where I want to share my music, and it absolutely is not where I want to share my playlists with friends and discover their music. The smart thing would be to stick with what you know best, and pick the leaders for the rest. Spotify integrates with your Facebook social graph to show fellow users, while Rdio lets you find friends on Facebook, Twitter, and a host of email providers.

Of course, sharing songs, artists and playlists to social networks like Facebook and Twitter, or by email, would be a prerequisite for a service like this. Enter your social credentials once, and go.

Playing Rihanna's S&M on Spotify

6) Fantastic Discoverability

One weakness to the online music game is discovering new music and artists. If you've gone fully digital, related artists and music will be increasingly important, contrasted to the old days of trusted DJs and radio stations. Without strong discoverability from accurate related items and social clues, the digital music space becomes a broker of sorts, where users get what they look for, but little more. One concern with iTunes here is the division between discoverability and highlighting artists driven by business deals.

Deadmau5 on Rdio - Streaming

7) Portability of Real Music

If you are a paying subscriber to Spotify, you can download playlists so they are available to you in offline mode. While iTunes has long held to the download and own mantra, this should not change dramatically with streaming. I should be able to download songs to my PC or my phone with no problem, with appropriate DRM.

The Deadmau5 Catalog on iTunes

If iTunes can deliver feature-equal functionality to that of Rdio and Spotify, with the same catalogs and pricing, it's probable they will remain the market leader thanks to their massive headstart, software downloads, and access to users' credit cards. Even if they debut something that's almost as good, that would be good enough for most iTunes diehards. What concerns me about iTunes in the cloud, more than pricing issues or flexibility of devices, is them potentially using their market muscle for exclusives that hurt users. For as much trouble as the Beatles deal was, it's no surprise they're iTunes-only for now, but I don't want to start hearing more and more artists saying they are sticking to one digital music store.

For Spotify and Rdio, looking the giant in the face, they've got to go big quick, for streaming and a deep catalog alone cannot make them the number one player against somebody like Apple, who is bound to catch up. As for Google Music, like many of Google's products, they have to clearly communicate why cloud is better this time. Just because something is cloud-based doesn't always make it more desirable. Google will clearly have direct access to Chrome and Android users, which gives them a market, but they too will have to do more than hold serve.

I'm not an iTunes music customer right now. I pay for Spotify Premium, and have paid for Rdio the last few months, though I'm closing the pro account today thanks to its clear overlap with Spotify. If iTunes walks into this space like a bull in a china shop, tossing out new proprietary protocols, higher prices and exclusivity of artists, I'll stay away from iTunes, even on my Mac. But counting out the market giant is silly. I am rooting for Spotify and Rdio (and Google Music) to hurry up before the iTunes Cloud behemoth arrives, but rooting for quality music, fast access and great social links across all platforms, and we should all realize the unsung big player in this space is Facebook. If they choose Rdio or Spotify as their market partner, that would change the game - or they could be yet another player.

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