adStream: Freemium ad spot load

adStream is a journal of ad-stalking and interesting commercial sightings in streaming audio services.

Freemium — the layer of streaming music which is designed to funnel users into paid music subscriptions at services like Spotify, Rdio, and Slacker. Freemium streaming is ad-supported. Subscribers get an ad-free experience, plus (usually) better interactivity of some kind, such as unlimited song skips, downloading music, and random access to the entire music library.

The Experiment

We were curious about spot load in Freemium listening, and put it to the test in Spotify, Rdio, Slacker, and Pandora. Part of our impetus for this marathon ad-stalking session was a recent Wall Street Journal column (read here in Yahoo) which reported that record labels might limit freemium licensing. One of the most provocative label complaints is that freemium services don’t run enough ads.

How much interruption is injected in selected freemium services?

adstream nov2014 - spotify free plasyer smallSpotify

In our testing, Spotify was the most passive — and coincidentally, is one of the most interactive freemium environments, offering shuffled listening of an artist’s entire library, and unlimited song-skipping in Radio mode. We listened to 20 tracks in a single session, employing some skipping, and switching from one preset radio station to another in the middle. We could not trip an advertisement.

TOTAL: zero ads for 20 songs.


adstream nov2014 - rdio free player

Rdio also gave us a lightweight commercial experience. (Rdio ad inventory is exclusively repped and sold by Cumulus Media, as part of the companies’ equity partnership. Rdio’s ad-supported service started in May; adStream stalked and documented its first ads.)

Starting with Rdio’s Southern Rock station, we moved through 10 tracks. Not a single audio commercial supported Rdio’s cost of playing that music. We switched to an artist-seeded station (Darwin Deez), and settled back. A Macy’s ad was injected between the 4th and 5th songs. We finished out a set of 10 tracks without further interruption.

TOTAL: one 30-second spot for 20 songs.

slacker logo canvasSlacker

Slacker provided more ambitious commercialization. Knowing that Slacker imposes a limit of six skips per station, per hour, we decided to use that feature to the max. We started with the Indie Hits station, and heard an ad on the first skip. Bravo! Free interactivity was monetized. (Research indicates that listeners are willing to experience commercials in exchange for personalized online listening.)

We finished Indi Hits after six uneventful skips, and started the Alternative Chill station. Skipping through the station limit without interruption, we changed stations again, and got a pre-roll ad.

TOTAL: two 30-second ads for 12 skipped songs.


Deciding to compare these results with Pandora’s sophisticated advertising machine, we knew the results would be different. Starting with one artist-based station, we heard a 15-second spot after the second song. We skipped to the limit of six tracks, switched stations, and were greeted with a pre-roll spot break of two 30-second ads.

TOTAL: 75 second of commercials for six songs.

During this experiment we counted only audio ads. We disregarded companion visuals (the first Slacker ad was a video), and likewise ignored banner displays which accompanied our listening. We believe the motivation to upgrade from freemium to premium is about removing audio interruptions to the stream.

Brad Hill