By simplifying the notes without changing its tune, streaming-music service Rdio is hoping to jump into the mainstream with an app update and relaunch of its free offering.
The company, stuck in the middle of a crowded field of competitors, was launched four years ago by the billionaire founders of Skype and Kazaa. Though admirers tout its design and offline listening, it's remained a relatively small player, while Spotify jumped to the US to quickly outstrip Rdio in reach, powerhouse Apple launched its iTunes Radio offering, and Pandora grew into a behemoth. Rdio hopes the makeover will make it friendlier to potential new listeners.
"This launch is about creating a better Pandora," Marc Ruxin, chief operating officer, said in an interview.
The service, which launched a free, ad-supported music listening option as part of a partnership with radio station operator Cumulus last year, is expanding on the "stations" concept and bringing them to the forefront. Right now kept in a discrete area of the service called -- shockingly -- Stations, the channels will be imbued throughout other parts, like Browse and search results.
The revamp rolls out Thursday to iOS, Android, its Web player and Roku in 20 countries, out of the 60 where Rdio is currently available. The refresh will eliminate much of the lengthy process of orienting a new listener, instead taking them immediately to a home screen with a brief welcome message and a top tray of recommendations.
The top tray for all users is one called "Keep listening." For new listeners, it will have recommendations based on general popularity across the service, but for frequent users, the top tray will be tailored to match past usage and preferences. Below "Keep listening" are other trays that can be based on algorithms, and curated stations such as "Artists to Watch." The recommendations are a first for Rdio, which typically hasn't exerted an editorial voice.
The free, radiolike service lets you listen to a station of music based around an artist, a listener, an album or a genre, and hear tracks related to what you want to hear without specifically choosing them yourself, the standard setup for similar offerings like Pandora and iTunes Radio. Listeners to the free service will hear ads; they can't go back to a previous song or rewind the song they're hearing; and song skips are limited to six per station per hour. The company said that users can listen to an infinite number of stations.
A navigation pane on the left side is revamped too, with sections like home, trending, new releases, browse -- the place for curated channels such as genres, moods, event-based stations like the World Cup, as well as favorites. Rdio is introducing heart icons throughout the service, which will let listeners add anything -- a station, a song, an artist, another listener, a playlist -- to their bank of favorites.
Rdio is also attempting to enhance the social element of the service, not by overlaying Facebook or Twitter interactions but by attempting to foster connections between strangers and tastemakers who like the same music. As listeners use the service more, they can create their own stations, titled "John Doe FM" or "Jane Doe FM" or whoever you may be. The service will suggest these personalized listening feeds to like-minded listeners.
"There are maybe 50 human beings on the planet who have the exact same taste as me, but there's no other way to find those people," Ruxin said. "We can do that."
To find those people on Rdio, however, those 50 musical soul mates need to be using Rdio. The company, which is privately held and has more than 30 million songs in its catalog, has never released subscriber numbers, but outside estimates put its unique visitors well below those of Pandora and Spotify. In July, Rdio notched 1.9 million unique visitors, according to ComScore. Pandora netted 84 million; Spotify, 25.3 million.
With streaming services collectively counting only about 20 million paid subscribers on the planet, Ruxin said Rdio still sees plenty of opportunity to rise toward the top. "We wanted to basically open up the user experience to people who haven't had that moment of truth, that you can pay $10 a month for everything on iTunes."