I often listen to music while working. It’s a common practice I think, and while the traditional approach has been to use the trusty FM and AM signals broadcast by local radio stations more and more people are opting for internet radio. There are two main types of internet radio that I know of. The first kind is just like your traditional radio station. You don’t really interact with what you hear you merely tune in. The main difference is that you use a URL to tune in instead of a frequency. The advantages of this are greater selection and maybe fewer advertisements.
The other type is streaming audio that is dynamically determined by your interactions and preferences. Pandora and LastFM are the two most popular examples of this that I am aware of. A major difference between these two very cool applications that isn’t readily apparent is the way they decide what music to play for you. Other more obvious differences have to do with user interface.
Pandora’s recommendations are based on the intrinsic qualities of the music. Give Pandora an artist or song, and it will find similar music in terms of melody, harmony, lyrics, orchestration, vocal character and so on. Pandora likes to call these musical attributes “genes” and its database of songs, classified against hundreds of such attributes, the “Music Genome Project.”
Pandora runs in your web browser. Which means to use it all you have to do is go to their website. They have a really nice interface, the only downside of which is that it requires a flash plugin (this isn’t an issue for most people, and as a side note Pandora actually uses a open source alternative to Adobe Flash called Open Laszlo. Well done Pandora development team!). Pandora’s methods for letting you add stations, and for mixing up different genres and artists is very intuitive and has made for some interesting mixes for me. The downside is that if you have a somewhat slow connection it may take some time to load up. In the era of tabbed browsers it is no problem at all to leave a tab with this running. The drawback of this browser dependent approach is that you are going to have to come back to the proper browser tab if you want to rate a song, change the volume independently of other sources, or just figure out whats playing. I have heard a rumor about a desktop widget type of thing that can control Pandora, and if not that there are bound to be browser plugins that show up to deal with this inconvenience.
- intuitive fun user interface
- good method for building stations
- good information on artists
- information on your friends listening habits
- fast initial setup
- good for finding music with very specific sound
- advertisements, (not in the music though)
- stuck in the browser
- seems to play a lot of repeats on some stations
Last.fm is a social recommender. It knows just a little bit about a songs’ intrinsic qualities. It just assumes that if you and a group of other people enjoy many of the same artists, you will probably enjoy other artists popular with that group.
LastFm can be run from your browser, from a lastFM program that you install, or from plugins within many popular music programs. and using a plugin lastFM can learn about your music preferences from any music you listen to, not just what you listen to in lastFM itself. This is a pretty powerful way to get worthwhile music recommendations. The upside of the plugin and independent player are that you can control the music without having to navigate back to the proper tab in the browser. You don’t get some of the flashy effects and animation that are so impressive on Pandora, and the initial set up can take a little longer, but in my opinion the trade off is totally worth it. The Last FM player, and plugin are also open source, which I am obviously a fan of. Another advantage is the lack of advertisements. Of course there are adds on their site and well placed links to click if you want to buy music but other than that you won’t be solicited in any way.
- no browser lock in
- great new music suggestions!
- good information on artists
- even more information on your friends listening habits!
- open source
- good for finding music you like in wide variation of styles and sounds
- take more time and effort to get going
- no frills, just music (potentially a good thing…)
Both Pandora and LastFM are amazingly cool tools that help people enjoy and discover new music. Both are well executed, and both have unique advantages. I prefer LastFM for the variety and types of music that it recommends and for the way I interact with the player. I still use Pandora from time to time, and would recommend it especially for more casual users.