Sunday, December 28, 2008

Can computers *really* predict the music I will like?

In my neverending quest to find great music on the internet, I ended up moving beyond the simple streaming services. Not that I have anything against the staple of internet radio. In fact, as I've said before, I'm an avid listener of stations like smoothbeats.com and beatbasement.com. But sometimes I want to hear music that fits my mood. A playlist that goes beyond embracing a certain genre, and maybe goes two or three sub-genres deep. Usually that would mean firing up my own music collection. That is, until I discovered a site called Last.fm a few years ago. Their famed audioscrobbler is actually a computer algorithm that gathers info on the music you like, and matches it up with music it "thinks" you should like. I was addicted for a while until I figured out that the scrobbling game had some competition around town. I'll break a few of the major players down for you.

Last.fm
Ah, the apple of my eye. Last.fm was my *first* music recommendation site, and I still have a soft spot for it. Last.fm re-introduced me to underground hip-hop and started my love affair with internet radio. Their recommendation system was AWESOME to my novice ears. Basically, you allow Last.fm to "listen" to the music in your personal library, and then it can make recommendations based on similar artists. So I played some MF Doom (Mouse & The Mask) for them, and in response I heard a cut from what I would now describe as the greatest underground hip-hop album of all time: The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox. And I was in a FEVER for more! Their catalog of music was LIMITLESS, unlimited streaming subscriptions were CHEAP (like $6 for 90 days), and you could build your own playlist of music!!! But, alas, the years (and a corporate acquisition by CBS) were not kind to the O.G. of audioscrobbling. Their decline began in early 2008 as they started losing the rights to TONS of music. Playlists became worthless, and their music was repetitive. Today, I can still recommend it in good conscience. But the serious music fan will quickly outgrow it. Here are the highlights:
  • MULTIPLE listening clients for Windows, Mac and Linux. As Last.fm uses open source software, there are literally dozens of programs that support streaming including 3rd party clients as well as the official release. You can even stream tunes through their website using flash!
  • Playlist support. Even though licensing issues have watered down this feature, it's still killer. Hear something you like? Save it to your playlist for later listening...
  • Multiple streaming stations. Want to hear your just songs that you "love"? Or maybe just recommendations? Last.fm's got you covered.
  • Did I mention the social networking? Stream your neighbors' radio stations and connect with others of similar interests. For a while, this was my favorite feature. Unfortunately, there's only so much social networking that people are willing to indulge in within a week. The Facebook juggernaught is assimilating all others. Soon, I think sites like Last.fm will exclusively pipeline their social netowkring feature through Facebook. It's inevitable.
Slacker
Man, I like this site purely for the name. It's a little different from Last.fm. It can't listen to your music collection for clues, but as you listen, you can gives songs the thumbs up or down. This is definitely the hard way to do things (similar to Yahoo Music and AOL), but it works if you're patient. What puts Slacker ahead of the curve is its mobile lifestyle aspirations. Slacker takes the recommendation model one step further and offers a portable radio player with wifi. It syncs new music across the internet to the player, and voila! You got new tunes! In addition, they are deploying the player software into mobile phones on Sprint's network, so expect some big things from this rookie player. I don't use them for my everyday listening, but when they start supporting my mobile phone, I'm all over them!

Pandora
I saved my favorite for last. Pandora is quite simply the most ingenious music recommendation system ever invented. And it's a CRYING SHAME that they have not invaded the mobile space like Slacker!!! Do you hear me Pandora??? GET ON WINDOWS MOBILE AND BLACKBERRY! WE NEED YOU!!! Whew. Sorry. Got a little out of control there. But I REALLY like Pandora. The secret, my friends, is in the sauce. Here's what I wrote about them a few weeks ago:
"You're greeted by the site asking you for an artist you like. That's when the magic starts. Even obscure artists seem to have had their music BROKEN DOWN and defined for Pandora's recommendation engine. It literally knows what basic ELEMENTS (beat pacing, rhyme style, musical genre) define each artist, and matches those elements to other artists. This is FUNDAMENTALLY different from Last.fm's audioscrobbler which simply matches similar artists. It was so accurate that I listened my first night for HOURS! I am in music-love all over again! Pandora's my new home for underground beats."
Did I mention that I receive NO monetary compensation from Pandora. At all. My only issue is that the available streaming clients are a bit....... heavy. Other than their website stream, Pandora offers an Adobe Air client that throws in everything but the kitchen sink. You get music, recommendations, history, and advertisements. Might as well fire up the web browser with all that crap. That said, I would STILL recommend Pandora over all others. Seriously, their recommendation engine is *that* good!

Give me some feedback, folks. I know there are other services out there. Which ones do *you guys* use. Do you have a preference for any of the ones I mentioned here? Next time, I'll be talking about internet TV and the HULU invasion. Until then, Happy New Year, people!!!
Post a Comment