Now that music has become mostly a commodity in the minds of consumers, music industry companies are having to think of new solutions in order to stay relevant and profitable. While they struggle to figure out how to reach those consumers, companies like Last.fm, Pandora, and Slacker are exploring today’s real innovation in music – customized and personalized listening experiences.
While all three services offer their own unique implementations of online radio, there are a number of ways that each solution trumps the rest in features and user experience. Let’s dive in to a comparison and find out what makes these services so slick:
Based out of the U.K., and now owned by CBS, Last.fm is the leader of online customized radio. No other service has the sheer volume of features, tracking and statistics that Last.fm offers. From listening to stations comprised of your “neighborhood” of like-minded users, to forming listening groups around artists or any custom topic, to just listening to your loved tracks when you spring for their premium service – there’s a wealth of options to enjoy your music. They also offer event tracking and music videos to coincide with your library of artists which acts as a nice extension to their core radio service. Where the site really shines is with its tagging system; enabling you to categorize songs and artists in a uniquely defined way, and listen to custom stations incorporating them. Last.fm’s other features include a robust new API, a recently launched revamp of the site’s user interface, and an excellent Apple iPhone application for streaming your radio stations on the go. In addition, Last.fm recently offered unsigned musicians to place their material on the service and receive royalties – a feature only they can boast.
Last.fm still has room for improvement however, with a glaring lack of a pause button being the obvious, badly needed missing feature. The official answer on this is due to licensing restrictions, so it might never see the light of day. But it seems odd that all of the other services can offer a pause function, and last.fm mysteriously can’t. Ultimately, there’s plenty of opportunity for growth within Last.fm to become the definitive online music listening destination.
Steve Krause said it best when he described Pandora as the “nature” to Last.fm’s “nurture”. Pandora’s “Music Genome Project” takes apart the musical qualities of songs and uses things like the key, the tone, and instrumental combinations to define similarities between tracks. This showcases a stark contrast to last.fm’s more basic method of just comparing all users’ tastes to deliver your recommendations. Pandora’s playlists often end up offering a more aesthetically pleasing radio experience due to this hand-picked nature of determining musical similarities.
Pandora’s ability to play music you choose, versus music similar to what you choose, doesn’t quite hold up to the other services, but for what it does offer it does a remarkable job – showcasing lesser known acts, keeping the “mood” of a station intact, and offering well shuffled QuickMixes of all of your custom stations.
Pandora has also leaped ahead in the mobile space, with an impressive number of supported cell phones, including their flagship Apple iPhone application that mimics the iPod experience almost exactly, adding the many features of Pandora on top.
Slacker is the newest kid on the block, and brings along some impressive abilities of its own. Unlike the other services, Slacker does offer you the chance to have radio stations of ONLY the artists you tell it to play, at no additional cost. They also have a premium service, that will let you play any song, any time, and eliminate the occasional station promo spots. There are some nicely designed ready-made genre stations that you can also adjust to your preferences if you’re not completely happy with the DJ compiled playlists.
Slacker’s ability to “FineTune” your custom radio stations offers a world of tweaking to make excellent stations. You can tweak how new the material is, how popular, how much you want to hear your loved tracks; it’s really empowering to have so much control over the music stream.
In addition to their free web player, they have both a desktop application for PC, and a portable device that mimics the online experience. Now that Pandora and Last.fm offer iPhone applications, Slacker’s portable device has less draw, but this could be fixed quickly if Slacker created their own app for the iPhone listeners.
I would also like to give an honorable mention to Yahoo’s Launchcast, which used to be the only game in town circa 1999 for personalized radio. I’ve been listening to online radio in various ways over the years, and although Launchcast was once the best option, these days it suffers from too many drawbacks to recommend… For example:
- it doesn’t work on a Mac (unless you’re on Parallels/Fusion)
- it only works in Internet Explorer (although you can use IETab as a workaround)
- you can’t track or share your listening habits/statistics (LaunchScrobbler seems to be now defunct)
- you can’t skip songs
- the sound is in mono, and low quality
- very limited number of songs
- frequent radio ads
- unstable situation within Yahoo Music’s management
Some of these limitations are lifted if you spring for the $3-$4 a month for LaunchCast Plus which gives you:
- high quality stereo sound quality
- unlimited skipping, and artist/song access
- more personalization via “moods” and “influencers“
Ways To Combine Services
There are also a few options to track your listening on Pandora and Slacker on last.fm. Use:
With my testing of all three services, I’ve found that:
- last.fm is best for:
- listening tracking
- stations by “tag”
- and community features
- Pandora is best for:
- user interface
- “mood” stations
- and mobile device streaming
- Slacker is best for:
- music discovery
- custom genre stations
- and truly customized radio
I have high hopes that perhaps the minds of these companies will meet at some point to come to a combined ultimate solution which really meets the needs of consumers. Taste in music is so unique, but there must be a better way to zero in on what makes it that way, and how best to deliver exactly what avid music listeners want to hear, when they want to hear it.
I’m also interested to hear how you’ve used these services. and which of them meet your music listening needs, so please, add your comments below.