Rdio, Spotify and the Paradox of Choice

Spotify has arrived in the US! Twitter was all abuzz when the announcement came, and lots of my friends jumped on board as soon as they could scrounge up invites. I was excited to sign up too, but then I procrastinated. And then procrastinated some more.

For one thing, I have a pretty big collection of music I’ve purchased over the years, and when you consider that, say, 500 years ago, many people on the planet had the opportunity to listen to music only a few times during their lives, maybe I should just be satisfied with what I already have. But it seems I’m not, because in addition to my own music collection, I use Pandora, and I subscribe to eMusic.

I like the “lean-back” experience of Pandora. I don’t have to make many decisions, and it often introduces me to great new music – which I then add to my wish list on eMusic.

That’s where the problem starts for me.

My eMusic wish list has become absurdly huge, and for $11.99 a month I can download about three albums (which is much better than iTunes or Amazon). The problem is, I’ve come to dread my “refresh” date, because I know I’ll be overwhelmed not only by what’s already in my wish list, but what’s available to me in the rest of the eMusic catalog. More than once I’ve left without downloading anything, telling myself I’ll come back when I feel more inspired or when I have more time to browse. More than once I’ve failed to come back, forfeiting my monthly fee (until recently, the policy was use it or lose it).

Based on my experience with eMusic, I hesitate to sign up for yet more music to choose from. But the problem is not just about choosing what to listen to; there’s also the problem of choosing which music service to sign up for.

There’s Spotify now, but there are also Spotify’s competitors – most notably Rdio and Grooveshark, but also Rhapsody, the old incumbent, Last.fm, and many more. I’ve read five or six blog posts comparing these services to each other, and honestly I still feel like I don’t know what the differences are, or what makes any one of them better than the others.

I think it boils down to this: People prefer Rdio’s UI (especially the mobile app). Spotify has a (slightly?) bigger selection (and better sharing features?). Grooveshark, as a crowdsourced service, suffers from inconsistent song naming and questionable licensing (the latter of which puts them at risk of being shut down). Also, they don’t have a mobile app. Last.fm and Rhapsody are fine services that just have the misfortune of being yesterday’s news.

This of course is a uniquely first-world problem, which lies in the psychological realm of what is lately being called “The Paradox of Choice.” Psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of the book bearing this title breaks it down into several sub-problems – two of which are relevant here:

  • Choice and Happiness – Basically an over-abundance of choice leads to depression. One study showed, for example, that people at chocolate-tasting events enjoyed themselves much more when they were given a smaller selection of chocolates to choose from.
  • Missed Opportunities - I know I’m not going to pay for eMusic, Spotify and Rdio, but I resist committing to any of them because I’m afraid of what I’ll forever miss from the others.

This all reminds me of the first time I saw one of those Internet-connected digital jukeboxes in a bar – the ones that will fetch almost any song you can think of. I was waiting my turn behind a guy who’d just put his money in it, and he was taking forever. Come on come on come on, I was saying in my head, until he finally finished making his picks. Then it was my turn, and I was completely flummoxed. Eventually I think I gave up.

There’s a bar in San Francisco called Lucky 13 that’s famous for its jukebox. It’s a wonderfully-curated selection of great punk music, plus a few all-time classics and a nod to pop. It’s easy to choose a great set in the Lucky 13 jukebox.

Carefully considered limits can be a good thing.

Here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m going to cancel my eMusic, because choosing three albums a month out of their massive catalog is the most acute problem in this mix. Then, I’m going to sign up for Rdio, not because I’m certain it’s better than Spotify, but because my friend Marisol works there.

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© 2009 Shawn Smith | Creative Commons.
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