April 12, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Interview: Rdio Engineering VP Wants Universal Music Apps

rdio streaming subscription music service interview todd bermanSpotify has received plenty of attention for its app platform, and rightfully so. Rdio also has an app platform, offering access to the same songs, more or less.

Evolver.fm caught up with Rdio vice president of engineering Todd Berman to discuss the one-year anniversary of Rdio’s developer API; the service’s approach to third-party apps; and his belief that Rdio, Spotify, Rhapsody, and MOG need to start thinking like partners if they want to see streaming music succeed.

The following interview, in which we attempt to find out what is up with Rdio’s app platform, has been edited for length and clarity.

Andy Cush, Evolver.fm: Your API Gallery shows eight apps built on the Rdio API, but I have a feeling quite a few aren’t represented there. Are there Rdio-powered apps that you’d like to highlight, or that you think that our readers would be particularly interested in?

Todd Berman, Vice President of Engineering, Rdio: Absolutely. One of the things that we’re bad at, as I’m looking at our API gallery, is actually updating it. These are all demo apps or hacks or things from forever ago. There’s been a bunch of really cool apps built recently. Have you heard of Anthm?

Evolver.fm: Yes, we ran a review about it recently.

Berman: Anthm is built on top of the Rdio API. They’re great — we really like what they’re doing. There have been a couple other things in the same area, that crowd-playlisting, collaborative real-time mixing sort of stuff that’s happening. There’s also the AOL Play app, which isn’t in the gallery, and SoundTracking, which also uses the Rdio API. There are a lot of API customers out there. One of the bigger ones, recently, was the Grammy music presence, at wearemusic.grammy.com.

There’s another app that I’m a big fan of, personally, that’s been around a while. It doesn’t have the greatest name, as far as communicability, but rrrrradio is this cool real-time playlisting thing. If I’m on here, it shows me a bunch of songs that will play, and it will play for anyone who’s on there with me at the exact same time. We can cue songs together and listen to them at the exact same time together. It’s like a listening room, but it’s only one room. It’s pretty cool.

Evolver.fm: You guys released your API about a year ago. Spotify launched [their API to iOS developers in August 2011 and their in-client API in November], and they’ve garnered quite a bit of buzz — both for the official in-client apps and the third-party web and mobile apps that run on top of Spotify. Can you comment on where Rdio’s API strategy is headed in the future, or on Rdio’s approach towards third-party developers vs. Spotify’s?

Berman: First, their API has been out way longer than ours [April 2009]. Spotify’s API has been around forever. The in-app API that they just recently released is relatively new. I think what they’ve done with Spotify is really cool. It’s something that we’re very interested in. We’ve been building our relaunched web product for about six months. One of the early reasons we built it was to look at plugging in external data sources — you can call them apps, you can call them pages, whatever you want to call them.  As we rebuilt the Web experience it was important to us to give people a place to plug in to the Rdio client, on the Web and on the desktop.

It’s something that we’re definitely taking a long look at, but we’re hesitant to launch an app platform that puts developers into this quandary of, “Well, I use Rdio, so I’ll build an Rdio app, but my friend is on Spotify, so now I’ll have to build two apps that are totally different.”

We’re interested in reaching out to all the players involved — Spotify, MOG, Rhapsody, etc. — to work together towards building something that’s more of an open framework. These are all HTML5 apps running JavaScript and CSS, and they all live in a browser or a web window inside a native window. On the technical side, there should be no reason that a developer has to build for one platform versus another. [See also: Project Rosetta Stone from The Echo Nest, publisher of Evolver.fm, which includes song and artist IDs for Spotify, Rdio, and other services].

The last thing we want to do is engage in a developer war with a company that, for all practical intents and purposes, should be one of our closest partners. We look at Spotify as more of a partner company than anything else. We’re all trying to grow the subscription music space, because it’s not a space right now that’s big enough to sustain one business, let alone the five that are in it. If you look at some of our messaging in the press, you’ll see that, for us, it’s all about the rising tide, working together, and growing the space in general.

There’s a lot of consumer messaging and education that has to happen. There’s no value is gaining one- or two-percent market share by having this app or that app, when the reality is, we need to convince everyone that this way of accessing and acquiring music is the best way for them, and the best way for artists to deliver music to their fans.

Evolver.fm: That’s a refreshing way of looking at it.

Berman: I like to think it’s the only way to look at it. We’ve reached out to Spotify, and we’re reaching out to the other players at MOG and Rhapsody, who we have a good relationship with, and saying, “Hey, let’s all work together on building a unified app platform for developers.”

I have a couple of friends who use Spotify over Rdio. I don’t know why I’m still friends with them — you’d think, out of friendship, they would throw me a bone. About a month ago, I was talking to one of them, who’s an amazing designer, and he said to me, “I wish I had someone who would work with me on this feature for Spotify’s app platform, I have an idea that I think would be cool.” I thought to myself, “This is such a great idea. I’m a software engineer and I would happily help you, but I don’t use Spotify.” So what, now I have to write a Spotify app?

But if he could design an app that works on everything — and he could, there’s no reason he couldn’t — and I could build an app that works on everything — it’s just JavaScript, it’s just HTML — then we can work together, building something that could provide value for everyone. Whether they’re Spotify users, Rdio users, MOG users, Rhapsody users, whatever, they could look at this and say, “Oh, this is a reason to pay a service for access to this application.”

All that really needs to happen is the right people at each streaming service, and anyone else who is interested in this better platform, getting together for a series of phone calls, hack days, that sort of stuff, and just feeding some ideas back and forth.

There’s no reason that all of this shouldn’t be interoperable. It’s not like 1997, where you go to a Web site and it’s like, “Oh, this only works in Internet Explorer 4.” That’s just not how the internet works anymore. There’s no reason to throw back to that.

It’s just all about a meeting of the minds, more than anything, but from a technical perspective, each service is going to have to do a lot of work to allow these apps to run inside their container. But there’s no insurmountable technical reason that this is impossible.

Evolver.fm: We had a conversation recently with one of the cofounders of SpotON Radio, a popular app that runs on Spotify. He made an interesting point about where he thinks the relationship between third-party developers and music streaming services is going –basically comparing the streaming services to network service providers.

In the future, he believes your biggest asset as a streaming service is going to be your library itself, rather than your interface, or your social features, or whatever. It’s going to be about the music as data, and people will be more interested in how third parties can interact with that data than they will be in who is providing it.

Berman: I agree and disagree. If he’s saying that our library is our most valuable feature, I agree completely. The library is going to be the most valuable thing we offer to businesses like his as well as our users. It’s the ability to access any song you want, any time you want, wherever you want.

Now, whether that means we no longer innovate on the product side of things, I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. If that world that he’s talking about is really where we we’re going, we’d already be there. You can build apps on top of all these platforms; developers already have access to all of this. I think there’s still a lot of value in what we provide as a product, whether it’s on the best practices side, how to interact with the user over music, or just on the implementation side.

Here’s the best way to put it: on your iPhone, you’ve probably downloaded a ton of apps. How many of those apps have been replacements for the calendar app, or the mail client, or the phone dialer? Those are things that aren’t sexy to build, and aren’t fun, and are kind of an expected part of the experience. There’s still some value in providing the product at that bigger-box level.

However,  I would love to live in a world where there’s a huge value added provided by third-party developers, because I think there definitely can be. That’s something we would be excited about participating in.

Evolver.fm: Is Rdio currently doing anything to incentivize developers to build Rdio-powered apps, or are there any plans to do so?

Berman: We actually incentivize developers now with a lifetime affiliate program. In a world like the one the SpotON guy is talking about, where he’s delivering customers to our door, and customers are signing up because they heard about a particular app — if that was happening on Rdio, he’d be making a significant dollar figure, per subscriber, for the lifetime of that subscriber.

Say you’re an Rdio user who has a lapsed trial. You tried Rdio, but it wasn’t for you. You hear about this great app, you try the great app, and you like it enough that you decide to go back to Rdio. Whoever built that app, I believe he’s getting about 40 cents per month for the subscription length of an unlimited subscriber. It’s not significant in the individual case, but if he can drive 10,000 signups, and those users stay committed users forever, you’re talking about a pretty significant amount of money.

And the beauty of it is that users don’t have to continue using the app in order for the developer to continue to make money. It’s just about building an app that causes people to check out Rdio and say “Hey, I want to try Rdio because I’ve heard this app is really good.”

Evolver.fm: Do you have numbers for how many subscribers have been driven by third-party apps?

Berman: Not that we’re comfortable releasing now, but I can tell you as someone who monitors those numbers that it’s a non-insignificant amount of money that’s paid out every month. There are a couple of app developers who are happily generating what my friend who’s an investment banker calls passive income. They’re not doing anything on these apps anymore; these apps are just making money. So it’s the best kind of income.

Again, this is something where, across the board, cooperation between services would be great. People may wonder why Rdio and Spotify won’t let developers charge money for their apps if they’re built on our APIs. Why can’t a great app like Anthm charge three bucks, or a dollar? That’s all from the content owners. So it’s something we’re working on with some of these app providers, to go to the content owners and say, “Look, this is how this helps everyone.”

It’s the rising tide. It’s something we’re very interested in being cooperatively open about with our other partners in this space, including Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc. It’s just having these conversations at an open level. That’s where we’re always happy to be.

Evolver.fm: OK, one last thing. What do you say to bands like the Black Keys, who’ve been vocal about not wanting their music on streaming services because they don’t feel like they’re making enough money?

Berman: Madonna’s last record, the one that just went out last week, sold 400,000 albums and also was available on streaming services from day one. I don’t think there’s a strong negative correlation between streaming availability and sales numbers. I do think there’s a strong correlation between how often your album is pirated and how easy it is for the consumer to get it the way they want, whether that’s digital downloads, subscription services, buying it at Amoeba, purchasing it secondhand, whatever it is.

It’s all about providing your fans with music the way that they want to consume it, and unfortunately, most music fans think music should be free. I do not. I’m a big believer in renumeration for the artist, because this is what they do for a living. I get where the Black Keys are coming from, and I think that they’re well within their rights to do whatever they want with their content.

I will say this as a Black Keys fan: I haven’t heard the new album.  I won’t pirate it, because that’s not something I’ll do, and they won’t give it to me in a way that I want to listen to it anymore, so I just haven’t heard it. They lost a fan.

Look at what the TV studios are doing with Netflix. They’ll put a DVD out, but not make it available on Netflix for 28 days. The hope is that it will make people more likely to buy the DVD. Maybe that’s where we’re going, and there will be a windowing process like that for music. Personally, I hope not. My favorite thing to do in the morning is check what new music came out, listen to stuff right away, and share it with my friends. It drives more interest in artists that I care about.

Evolver.fm: So, with windowing, labels would keep popular albums off of the streaming services at first?

Berman: If this space was generating 50 times as much revenue as it is right now, you would assume that the Black Keys’ check would be 50 times what it is right now, and all of a sudden that check is a check they want. So I think it all goes back to this idea that the space itself is not big enough yet. Every company in it should be focused on one thing and one thing alone, and that’s creating more purchases of subscription music, more subscribers, and more participants, regardless of where the dollar ends up in the short-term.

In the long-term, we need to blow this business up and get many more people interested in the model of access over ownership for music. We need to get rid of this whole idea that, “Oh, this is my song and I must own it,” because you don’t need to. You just need to be able to hear it whenever you want. That’s all that matters.

  • xp84

    Maybe the Black Keys should talk to their label about why they aren’t getting enough money eh? What a bunch of whiners. When you signed a label contract that gives most of your money (regardless of streaming vs. download vs. CD) to the label, then you only have yourself to blame, don’t you?

  • freedom

    I can not sign in