Thoughts on how I consume music with Last.fm, iTunes, Rdio, Spotify and Bloom

Eddie Cue announcing iTunes Radio at WWDC 2013

Eddie Cue announcing iTunes Radio at WWDC 2013

As a music enthusiast I've been waiting to see what Apple would offer as far as the long rumoured 'iRadio' was concerned to compete with other streaming services including the recently announced succinctly named Google Play Music All Access.

With the dust from WWDC settling and the confirmation that 'iTunes Radio' will be included with iOS7 later this year I've been thinking about how it will fit into my current listening habits if at all, how my habits have evolved and what each music service's pro's and con's are.

To cut to the chase, at the moment I still buy my music mainly from iTunes (occasionally still ripped from CDs) and use iTunes Match on a daily basis. I also subscribe to Rdio for £10 per month (although I do alternate with Spotify regularly) and use Last.fm extensively with a £3 per month subscription to their radio service.

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My reasoning for the above is as follows; For many years I have been tempted by the subscription only route, especially as I listen to a lot of music and am always up for discovering the next great band/album. For a while I tried to use Spotify exclusively as they were the market leader and had the largest streaming library with momentum obviously behind them. They have some great features like the ability to sync iTunes music to your iPhone and mix your local library with tracks that you don't own as well as apps within the desktop version which gave me access to Last.fm and other services making some sense of the sheer number of songs available to listen to.

I still dabble with Spotify but fundamentally found the user interface (UI) of both the desktop and iOS apps to be very heavy and unintuitive. Most importantly though I've never been one for curating playlists, I either tend to listen to albums in their entirety or feel that the software should create playlists for me, I spent far too much time as a child listening to the top 40 on the radio and making my own mix tapes. It's not something that I care to spend much time on and this goes against the grain as far as Spotify is concerned with their bizarre insistence not to provide a album/collection view although they have said this is coming at some point.

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Rdio in contrast has a great UI, feels very fresh and light when using it with nice transitions in the iOS app. Their library isn't as big as Spotify's apparently but to be honest I haven't had many issues. The only notable absentee for me is Metallica who swore allegiance to Spotify at a press conference in December 2012. Unfortunately I find that Rdio's discovery tools aren't as good as Spotify, largely due to the lack of third party integration and you can't mix your local and cloud library which is frustrating but they do have a "Collection" view along with separate playlists which keeps me sane.

With Apple's iTunes I have ripped all of my CD's to it over the years so it holds everything I own, some of which isn't available on any of the streaming sites. Also with 'iTunes Match' I have been able to ditch the various iPod Classics that I have been upgrading since my very first Special Edition U2 iPod died and now use my iPhone solely for all my music needs with iTunes In The Cloud getting around the issue of the constrained storage in iOS devices.

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I'm also a heavy user of Last.fm. Unfortunately the service has fallen behind the other music services which is a missed opportunity although there have been recent promising signs such as the surprise release of the excellent Scrobbler for iOS app and they've finally updated their Mac client. The most frustrating thing I find about Last.fm is that they're sitting on a gold mine of data. There is no doubt that after years of 'scrobbling' the music I listen to from all the various services, Last.fm knows what I listen to and recommends great music as a result. Whereby iTunes Genius only knows what I've bought which also includes music I no longer like or my wife has bought that I have no intention of listening to and Spotify's recommendations are powered by The Echonest which for me at least seems to be way off and repetitive. One of the few reasons I use(d) Spotify was due to the Last.fm desktop integration but unfortunately they haven't transferred it across to their iOS app which is what I use for most of my listening.

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Another interesting startup that I'm currently trying out is Bloom.fm. They're based in London and have approached the streaming issue from a different angle, they are offering a standard radio app with the added ability to choose what songs you want to have local access to which they call 'borrowing'. Their payment plans start at just £1 per month for 20 local files which you can swop at any time, they also have £5 and £10 plans which offer larger local file limits. They could be on to a great idea here because I know lots of people that think I'm mad to pay £10 a month but paying £1 instead to sample some music to see if it's worth buying could be a better idea for me and could entice others to give streaming a try.

In terms of a couple of the other major services I must admit that I've never used Amazon's Cloud Player, I buy CD's from them and have bought a handful of MP3s in the past to try them out but apart from cost I prefer the convenience and ecosystem of iTunes.

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I also watched the Google I/O keynote where they announced their All Access Music service. As always with Google it sounds as though they're ticking all the boxes however it's not currently available in England and I feel more comfortable using/paying for a dedicated longer term music service than offering Google any more data on me than I need to for their latest whim (but that's another blog).

I watched Macbreak Weekly the other day in which Alex Lindsay talked about how he's moved to solely using Spotify and that in the past when buying an album you used to play it for months on end to make the most of your 'investment' and regret it if you bought a dud.

It made me remember that as a teenager I used to save money and travel up into London regularly with my friends to wander around Tower Records, Virgin or HMV and 'discover' new imported bands and pay a fortune (£20ish) for a random purchase of a CD from a band that a friend thought you may like or just because it had interesting album artwork that stood out in the racks.

This has changed, from my recent experience of using the streaming services I've found that it makes music disposable. There is such an abundance of music that when listening, if a track does't grab you in the first few bars then you skip to something else never to give it another listen. This is in stark contrast to most of my favourite music that didn't necessarily interest me to start with but after listening to them repeatedly and persevering they grew on me and I still enjoy listening to years later.

The closest current thing I've found to approximating that sense of discovery is Last.fm. Most of my friends and family have very different musical tastes so hooking Rdio, Spotify et al to my Facebook and Twitter accounts is fairly pointless. Last.fm however knows what I'm actually listening to and recommends similar, many times obscure bands that I would never have found otherwise. I can also search for 'musical neighbours' around the world and see what else they're listening to that I've never heard of.

That is why I've settled for the time being on using a combination of Last.fm for discovery of new music, an Rdio mobile subscription where I can 'try before I buy' listening to albums recommended by friends, Last.fm or that I've read about mainly in Rolling Stone or various guitar magazines and if I like them enough I buy them for my main library on iTunes.

This may all seem slightly counterintuitive, however I feel that the money can be justified as I used to waste more than that buying albums from bad recommendations as I did prior to streaming services being available. Also I like to own my favourite music and prefer to see that the bands I like get paid well for the art they create.

For me at least there currently is no one service that fulfils all of my listening needs, just many that almost do. As for iTunes Radio, on first look I can't see that it will improve upon my current setup but time will tell.