The addition of iOS and Windows 8 apps, along with an expansion to a claimed 18 million tracks, makes rara.com look like a solid choice for a streaming subscription music service. However, in a highly competitive market with numerous rivals, Lifehacker talked to CEO Nick Massey to ask the obvious question: can anyone other than Spotify win in this market?
Subscription music services can transform the way you experience sound. Once you've signed up, the odds are good that you can play any track you can think of, without trying to dig out the CD or paying for a permanent copy through a digital music store. All you need is an internet connection and a handful-of-cups-of-coffee monthly fee.
The challenge for a business selling you a subscription is that, for the most part, everything looks much the same. You search; you build a playlist; you ask for recommendations. When every participant claims a database of 15 million or more tracks, at best you'll choose the one that happens to have a deal with a label you like, or which offers to stream without counting your data allowance, or which supports the mobile device you already use, or which you've heard of. In that last category, Spotify has a definite advantage.
Rara.com launched relatively quietly in Australia back in January (ahead of Spotify down under, we might note). Save for gimmicky introductory pricing where you get a discount for the first three months, its most obvious distinguishing feature was a gap: no iOS client. Given Apple's strong position in mobile devices, that's a difficult position to be in.
As of today, it's also not a problem, with rara.com launching official iOS apps, as well as upgrading its existing Android app, rolling out a Windows 8 app later this week and adding a bunch of indie deals that increase its claimed track base to 18 million songs. So far, so ticking the platform boxes. That advantage in songs is likely to be temporary (a label willing to sign a deal with one service will inevitably capitulate to others), but every increase is welcome.
Yet the question remains: with Spotify seeming like shorthand for streaming music for many consumers and offering a free model provided you're willing to listen to ads, how can a pay-from-the-start service like rara.com surive? CEO Nick Massey doesn't seem worried, and says the company has no interest in pursuing customers who don't want to spend money.
"We don't have a free component," he told Lifehacker in a phone interview from his UK home. "We're not a freemium player. At a business level, we don't have the drag of the 80 per cent of consumers who can't pay for the service or will never pay for the service. Our model is very different. We basically target the people who can actually pay for a subscription. From day one you're actually paying us money. And hopefully you'll see great value in the service. For us it basically eliminates the need to keep raising stratospheric amounts of money from venture capitalists."
So do you get what you pay for? "We believe our service is incredibly simple and easy to use, which is very easy to say but very difficult to replicate It's very pictorially driven."
The other point Massey harps on is the "hand-curated" nature of rara.com's playlists, which are customised by individuals in each country. "We have teams of musicologists curating playlists in each local market. We're appealing to your feelings as opposed to what you think or what you know. We take the trouble out of the getting to the music for you."
Massey sees the entry of device manufacturers such as Samsung, Sony and Microsoft as affirmation that streaming subscriptions are the future of music. At the same time, he argues they're not nimble enough to compete. "You're in a brand-stretching exercise where you're stretching into the music space from the technology space. rara.com is only about the music; that's why it was created. We're not constrained by any of the baggage or the heritage or the legacy of coming from a technology background." That said, rationalisation seems inevitable in the sector, and the technology players at least have other revenue streams to fall back on.
Anyway, why so late to the iOS space? "We came out with Android first, and the reason why we did that is by count there are more Android devices out there. If you look at Android price points over the last 12 months, they've been progressively coming down." Fair enough, though I can't help thinking that someone who wants a sub-$200 phone may not want to pay every month for music.
In the future, Massey predicts expansion to consoles, TVs and cars, though he won't discuss specifics. While agreeing that a handful of brands will dominate, he suggests local content will continue to be important. "We want as much local content as we can possibly get hold of. Catalogue is important. rara.com is about finding the hidden gems. You know what you like, but you don't know what you want. That's the reason to drive content and we'll obviously just continue with that."