Though there may be no shortage of free and subscription-based music services, London-based startup Bloom.fm is counting on there being room for one more. It has a trick up its sleeve: a mobile-first approach to market. Not beholden to translating desktop functionality and UI features to the smartphone, Bloom.fm has delivered a distinct take on the mobile music experience. Out today for iOS in the UK, Gizmag takes the first look at the app, and talks to the team hoping to take on the big guns.
Unlike rival music services such as Spotify and Last.fm, which tend to specialize in either on-demand listening, or automated radio, Bloom.fm attempts to do both equally well. Launch Bloom.fm's Radio Wheel, and it quickly becomes evident that Bloom.fm does things a little differently.
Five circles appear on the screen: four in the four corners with likely genre stations like indie and pop (though these are soon be replaced by your recently-listened genres), while a circle in the center pulls you into the genre selection menu. Rather than simply present you with a list of genres, you are instead greeted with a flower-like array of genre petals. The design, Bloom.fm's Thong Nguyen told Gizmag, is a deliberate reference to the iconic click wheel of the original (and now the "Classic") iPod that allowed users to fluidly navigate menus by gliding a thumb over the wheel's surface. So, place a finger on one of Bloom.fm's flower petals, and the wheel can be spun bringing more genres into view.
When a genres is selected, a new flower appears with petals full of sub-genres (knowing depth sure to please more dedicated music listeners). So, select the Indie petal from the genre flower, and you're presented with a new flower with petals for Americana, Dream pop, Indie folk, Indie pop, Indie rock, Indietronica, Lo-fi and Twee. Or, there's the option to listen to a mixture of them all. The same goes for Bloom.fm's 20 other main genre categories: each has its own selection of sub-genre radio stations. It's a fun, light interface more reminiscent of certain mobile game menus than typical music apps, and yet it's an eminently sensible way to let users navigate some 200 radio stations in just a few taps. All stations are available to non-subscribers willing to listen to ads.
At the moment, genre stations are curated by Bloom.fm staff, but there's the option to vote tracks up and down according to the appropriateness of the track to the radio genre. Bloom.fm is keen to shift the emphasis onto collective user curation, but is also aware of the need to make the system robust against a few rogue votes. Last.fm tag radio listeners of days gone by will recall the potential for aural vandalism that can occur, so such caution is most certainly welcome. However, a minority down vote will remove a track from that user's radio.
"I think a lot of people, when they're doing music apps for mobile, if they come from the desktop or the web, they tend to shove that [interface] inside a mobile. And that's not necessarily the best way," Nguyen told Gizmag when we called into Bloom.fm's south-west London studio one September afternoon. "We wouldn't do anything unless we thought it was going to be fun to use, but also usable as well," he added. Nguyen suggests that later versions of the app might use a smartphone's accelerometers to open up other possibilities for interaction. A web version of Bloom.fm will follow, Gizmag was told, but the initial emphasis was firmly on mobile, as mobile is, in Bloom.fm's eyes, the future of computing. If the mobile emphasis paints the impression of an insubstantial service, consider that Bloom.fm launches with an impressive 16 million tracks available from day one.
Separate to the radio station is the Library, where users can find and curate their locally-stored collections. Different subscription levels allow you to "borrow" (i.e. locally cache) 20, 200 or an unlimited number of tracks, though naturally unlimited is constrained by the storage capacity of your mobile device.
Having searched for some music, limited subscribers can listen to 30-second previews of tracks before deciding whether to borrow. Individual tracks or whole albums can be borrowed at once, provided there's the spare capacity in your collection. Tracks can be borrowed or returned at any time, so though the entry level subscription allows only 20 tracks, at home (in the comfort of your own Wi-Fi) these can be chopped and changed as and when desired.
Fans of the Radio Wheel will be pleased to note that, having searched for a favorite artist, pressing the "Similar artists" button will let you surf away in the muso equivalent of six degrees of Kevin Bacon (I got from Odd Future to R.E.M in six taps, for example).
Once tracks have been borrowed, the collection can by navigated by album, artist or track. Users can also create playlists, and smart playlists will appear as users listen to the radio and borrow tracks. The sense of fun is also evident in library view: the act of borrowing a track is illustrated by a bee picking up and dropping off pollen (a bee that can also be seen buzzing around some of the app's menus – never in the way, but pokeable if you're in the mood.)
Bloom.fm is keen to stress the fairness of its pricing model. "I don't know about you, but I seldom eat at all-you-can-eat buffets," Bloom.fm's plain-speaking boss Oleg Fomenko told Gizmag. "I just pay for what I use. We believe life should be fairer to people who are light users."
Bloom.fm is not the development teams first foray into music streaming. The service has risen from the ashes of mflow, a 2008 streaming service and mp3 store. Fomenko spoke to Gizmag frankly of the "rocky journey" from mflow to Bloom.fm, but suggested that assets and learning carried over from the mflow… let's say experiment… have been extremely useful in creating Bloom.fm. One imagines the industry connections already established account, at least in part, for the service's impressive catalog on launch day.
In addition to the free, ad-supported radio, three levels of subscription are available:
(Ed's note: We formerly stated higher prices, which hold if users subscribe via in-app purchasing. Go direct to Bloom.fm, and the above prices are available.)
At all subscriptions, and for both Radio and Library, streaming and cached, audio is delivered at 160 kbps, though Bloom.fm told Gizmag that 320 kbps will come.
At the time of writing Bloom.fm is available only in the UK. See your iOS app store for details. Bloom.fm told us an Android release is likely in the new year.