As Beats Music looms, free music services circle the wagons

rdio promo 300wHere’s the news nugget: Rdio has followed Spotify‘s lead, and made its web listening free and unlimited. The service is introducing ads to support the cost — Rdio’s PR demurely calls them “new feature announcements,” and promises to mix in, well, announcements of new features. Such as, presumably, that now listening is free.

Yesterday, Spotify freed up its web listening with a celebratory announcement that probably baffled most users who didn’t know that listening caps were in place, under some circumstances, in some regions. That news was pure marketing, and could have been paraphrased as, “By the way, we weren’t as free as you thought we were, but now we are.”

These business maneuvers are playing offense and defense at the same time. The pre-launch Beats Music publicity is effectively carving out its competitive niche as a service powered mainly by humans, not by music selection algorithms. Beats is not bragging that you have to pay for it, but that is the business model. Beats is not unique as a subscription-only listening platform — Rhapsody and Google All Access go down that path, too. But Beats is coordinating a noisy, celebrity-studded launch effort, and its existing competitors are clearly positioning in advance.

It’s as if Beats Music were a meteor head for earth, and inhabitants on the ground were feeling the heat of its approach. Even Pandora is reacting in advance of the shock waves. On Wednesday the leading Internet radio outlet added a Recommended Stations feature to its app menu, adding an element of curation to the core function of users creating their own stations. More paraphrasing: Beats — “We are the curation service”; Pandora — “Hey, we can do curation too.” (The two curation methods are quite different. Beats will feature hand-crafted playlists by professional human programmers; Pandora uses its human-created Music Genome to power recommended stations.)

The wagon-circling defensive postures of existing services is unlike previous competitive upheavals, even last September when iTunes Radio entered the fray. That meteor was widely described as a scorching Pandora-killer, but the ground-level shock waves haven’t nearly matched the heat of approach. Pandora was bumped a bit at the beginning, but resumed its own meteoric trajectory in December, when its listening metrics grew sharply across the board. Nobody has talked about iTunes Radio in months.

So it might be a similar story with Beats Music, though a $60-million war chest gives it resources to pound away on the publicity machine. And whatever happens, no matter how big and disruptive this gets, it is all just a overture to the day when YouTube’s music service hits the market.

Brad Hill