By Jay Garmon
Pandora or Slacker? Last.FM or Grooveshark? There is a host of free streaming music services on the Web, but which one has the best features to go with its giveaway price? We sound it out in this listeners guide.
There are a few basic features common to most of online music services. Usually you can't request a specific song or band, but you can request that one or both are part of your music mix. Rating songs will entice these services to play them more or less often, but you can only skip or ban so many songs per hour (usually about 3-4) before you violate the service's play license and you're stuck with whatever music it gives you. Almost all of these services let you purchase MP3 versions of songs from Amazon and iTunes. Nearly all of them have display and audio ads, which you can ban by upgrading to a monthly subscription service. Most of the music services are available only in the United States or North America (due to licensing restrictions). Finally, virtually all of these services have iPhone and Blackberry mobile versions, with most of them appearing on Android as well. Beyond this feature set, it's the unique differences that make or break an online music service. I detail the various flavors below.
Pandora is arguably the most high-profile of the free online music services, and it bills itself as a "music discovery service" which is a nice way of saying "we're going to play at least as many songs you haven't heard before as we are tunes you know and love." It works like this: You create a Station on Pandora by requesting a song or artist, and Pandora builds a virtual radio station that plays works from -- and similar to -- that song or artist. It does so by matching your request against the appropriate song analysis from the Music Genome Project. For example, request "Jump" from Van Halen and you'll get lots of Van Halen and lots of mid-eighties electric guitar riffs from other artists (including solo stuff from Sammy Hagar and David Lee Roth). Sometimes this results in great discoveries of songs and bands; sometimes it just drives you crazy. The good news is you can "tune" these Stations by rating each song with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Thus, the more time you spend build a Pandora station, the more you should like it -- provided you have the patience.
Pandora also has a nice Quickmix feature that will play selections from all your stations, and there are some nice Artist Info pages below the fold on each page. Perhaps best of all, there's an I'm Tired Of This feature that will ban a song for 30 days without exiling it from a station permanently; this quickly became my favorite Pandora trick. Unfortunately, I found Pandora's Flash-based player to be a memory hog that occasionally crashed my browser. Your mileage may vary. Also, Pandora's licenses are unusual and you may "lose" a version of a song over time -- there are a lot of live/alternate cuts on Pandora that seem to spontaneously supplant the traditional album versions.
Slacker is like Pandora if Pandora was run by professional DJs. You select pre-designed stations based on musical genre -- like Classic Rock or Indie Hits -- or select stations based on specific artists. You'll hear pretuned mixes of songs in that genre or by that artist, but the station will also play tracks by similar groups. The result is a much more refined and radio-like experience than Pandora; you'll discover less and recognize more. Slacker also has some very fine-grained preference options, so you can have any song you've favorited played more or less often, ramp up the mix of popular versus obscure artists, and outright ban artists or songs from any station. You can also build custom stations from the ground up by feeding in artists. Slacker is the easiest of all the services to "surf" between stations. Slacker also tells you which song is going to play next, so you can spend your limited hourly skips more wisely -- don't jump past a song you're just tired of to land on a song you hate. Slacker's premium version allows unlimited skips, displays song lyrics, and permits song requests along with removing its ads. Strangely, Slacker doesn't allow MP3 downloads of songs, but it will sell ringtone versions of most tracks.
Last.FM is a bit like Slacker in that it has stations based on artists, but it differs from the other services in that it boasts "instant" knowledge of your listening habits -- provided you regularly listen to MP3s on your PC. By downloading the Last.FM "Scrobbler" plug-in, the service integrates with iTunes, WinAmp and Windows Media Player and analyzes not just the songs already in your MP3 library, but the frequency with which you listen to them. From this observation Last.FM builds a preference profile for you and plays songs from its library matched to your tastes. You can also manually tune the suggestions without the Scrobbler, which will appeal to those who don't want the Scrobbler hanging out in their System Tray (where it can launch a browser-free Last.FM miniplayer). Last.FM also offers nice integrated song "sharing" -- as in "Hey, I'm listening to this song!" announcements -- thanks to keen Facebook and Twitter integration. Beyond the usual Amazon and iTunes MP3 purchase options, Last.FM also links to 7Digital and offers ringtone purchasing. Last.FM is available in several European countries as well as the US, but manages its international licensing with somewhat aggressive IP address and cookie scanning. This same tech is used to promote live concerts and music events in your area, so if the artist you're listening to is playing a show nearby, you'll be informed.
Grooveshark, frankly, was the most impressive music service we came across, and probably will remain so right up until the moment it's sued into oblivion. Unlike every other service we've seen, Grooveshark lets you request specific songs, build specific playlists, infinitely skip over any suggested songs, and fast-forward through songs by advancing the progress bar. It's basically a Web-based version of your iTunes account, but with access to thousands of other users' iTunes libraries, too. How's it work? Grooveshark doesn't "own" any music, it just lets users share. All the music in the Grooveshark library was uploaded by users, which leads to a highly diverse catalogue of songs that aren't subject to Internet radio restrictions because they aren't being "broadcast," they're just being "shared" on a one-off basis between friends -- sort of like if I played you a record in my living room. Moreover, you can upload your own entire library (using a rather kludgy widget) to the service, so all your music is available online, anywhere in the world. You can also create embeddable widgets of a given song to play on your blog or Facebook page, which is a step beyond the typical Facebook and Twitter sharing options (which Grooveshark has, too). Download any Grooveshark song from Amazon, iTunes or as a ringtone. Grooveshark's Radio feature suggests new songs based on what's already in your library, and it has a nice set of pop-up user tips that make tuning easy. The service is supported by unobtrusive sidebar ads, all of which go away with the Grooveshark VIP subscription service. I couldn't figure out what the library size limit is for standard Grooveshark users, but presumably it's lower than the 50,000-song library you're allowed under Grooveshark VIP.
Live365 is the black sheep of online music services because it's not actually an online music service; it's an Internet radio station network. Search for a band or genre on Live365 and you'll get a list of Internet radio stations -- run by real human beings and supported by commercials, just like broadcast radio stations -- that play those genres or artists. A number of actual, conventional broadcast stations actually use the Live365 service to stream their broadcasts over the Web. Live365 is a station-discovery service, not a music-discovery service. Users can build a list of "presets," like stored stations on an old-school car radio, and you can donate to stations with subscriber packages. If there's a station or list of stations you really enjoy, Live365 can generate embeddable widgets to install either lineup on your blog. While the quality of its stations is often quite good, the Live365 user interface is clunky and dated. If you're into it, Live365 offers services for setting up your own Web radio station. All stations have playlists of music that was recently broadcast, and these lists include Amazon and iTunes MP3 purchase links. I think of Live365 as a Web-based universe of niche/college radio stations -- but with lots more commercials.
Who is the best?
The absolute best online music experience I had came from Grooveshark, simply because I had the most control and the least restrictions applied to the music I heard. For as long as it lasts, Grooveshark is the best thing going in free Web music streaming. I can listen to what I want, when I want, wherever I want. That said, if you don't want to upload your entire music library online or spend the time building a custom library, Grooveshark may not be for you.
As a runner-up, I prefer Slacker, simply because it has the best interface and the best balance between music discovery (playing stuff you haven't heard) and familiarity (playing what you asked for). Slacker has rich controls if you want them, but the service offered as-is will satisfy most users. Best of all, I don't have to download a widget (Last.FM) or spend hours tuning a station (Pandora) to get a good mix of music on Slacker.
All of these services have something to recommend them, but Grooveshark and Slacker are a cut above the rest.
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