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Rdio Launches To An Uncertain Indie Future

Funny story. Remember waaaaaay back in 2001 when downloading music was still kind of new and weird, and it took hours to download one song from Napster or LimeWire?

Back then, Kazaa was another notable peer-to-peer music sharing network, kings of the dial-up connection, they were. That is, until they and all the other disruptive technology people got the pants sued off them by the music industry – a.k.a. Sony, EMI, UMG, and Warner.

Kazaa’s founders, Janus Friis, and Niklas Zennstrom, settled the case for $100 million just as they sold their next startup – Skype – for $3 billion. Kind of makes the music industry people and their settlement seems kind of puny, doesn’t it?

The Next Big Thing?

RdioMediaScreenshots_thumbFast-forward to today, and we find Friis and Zennstrom behind Rdio, a new music service that let’s you pay a monthly membership to stream like on Spotify, download like on iTunes, and share playlists, like Last.fm. Friis and Zennstrom are banking on the calculation that people are just about ready to start paying monthly subscriptions for online media, and that the memberships will start to roll in. Of course, up to this point, a similar approach has not worked for Rhapsody.

One of the biggest weapons in the Rdio arsenal is a complete set of deals with Friis and Zennstrom’s old friends, the music industry. All four major labels have struck deals with the new company for access to their entire music catalogs.

It was during their time in court together, Friis told TechCrunch, that he developed relationships with the key industry people that Rdio needed to launch with the extensive licensing rights it has obtain. All the major labels have been offered equity in the startup.

Hard to decide if that little turn-around serves as a better example of irony or hypocrisy.

Problems From The Get-Go

Rdio’s blog claims that it will offer up indie music as well as major label artists, and at this point, those with access to its list of content partners (not me!) say that it has struck deals with a few indie labels. However, The Register reports that Rdio has not struck a deal with Merlin – a label representing multiple indies to help them compete with the majors – refusing them the equity offer extended to Sony, EMI, UMG, and Warner.

No word yet if unrepresented independent artists will be able to put their catalogs up.

Beta testers of the new service are saying that the music selection is thusfar woefully slim. While Rdio advertises that users can replicate their music collections on the site, an ars technica reporter says that of the 7000+ songs in her library, only 2100 could be found in Rdio’s collection.

That makes about 5000 songs in one user’s collection representing music not available through the majors or through the select handful of hardly-independent smaller labels on Rdio. Which begs the question: is the proliferation of the independent music scene outstripping the ability of any one service to contain it all?

An Impossible Task

It could be that while Kazaa’s rebel founders were busy going straight and striking a deal with their old nemeses, the independent music industry evolved beyond them both. After all, who’s most likely to invest in monthly subscriptions that cost roughly the same amount as an album? Fans of Lady Gaga and Alicia Keyes, or those who like to discover new music from the underground, explore regional scenes, and dig back through music’s more obscure eras? It seems that paying for a service like Rdio would appeal to the music-hunter, the true music enthusiast, and it won’t succeed in hitting its demographic with a catalog of mostly mainstream offerings.

Even if Rdio opened its doors to all independent artists, it’s debatable, at this point, whether or not any service could assemble the vast and diverse catalog required to satisfy the $10-a-month user. Music, as it stands today, may be too sprawling, complex, and random, to be satisfyingly quantified and encompassed by any system.

Not that I want Rdio to fail, particularly if they do come around and embrace the promotion and distribution of independent music. But if as service as carefully designed as this cannot manage to cater to the dynamics of a single music listener’s library, then what, exactly, is it bringing to the table?

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