I’m a big fan of online streaming audio. I loved Pandora before it became US-only. I quite like Last.FM. Musicovery has a lovely approach in its interface and mood-based approach. Now – at last – we have Spotify, and another great utility I came across this week, Simplify Media.
I’ve covered Spotify before. I saw a pre-beta version and was very impressed with the immediacy of Spotify’s streaming. Then it went to invite-only beta so I was delighted to receive an invite last week and I’ve been playing around with it since. It has good technical points but I think it’s missing a big marketing trick.
Just to round up the current offerings, with my take on each:
- Pandora uses the Music Genome Project in which musicologists analyse a song using many parameters, starting from the basic – tempo, style and so on – and then really dig down to whether it’s guitar-based, solo, male/female vocals etc. It’s not very community-based – that is, it doesn’t become more sophisticated through referrals and relies on the possibly subjective analysis of a small community – but I loved the results. Type in Nick Drake and you could spend a wonderful afternoon with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley et al. It just… worked. Unfortunately its business model didn’t and so it had to batten down the hatches in the face of prohibitive licensing costs and is no longer available outside the US. You can try IP-rerouting to trick it, but with limited success.
- Last.FM is the leader and adopts a pureplay referral system. In the same way you see references on, say, Amazon telling you what other people have bought that is similar to the product you’re looking at, Last.FM infers that, because you like song A, you’ll like song B, because other people with similar tastes liked them too. It’s a great theory and it works well with, say, electrical goods or DVDs, but I’m not so sure the algorithm works as well for music. You can stream by artist or by tag and of the two, tag works best. If I listen by artist I’m often dismayed that Last.FM will give me American soft rock when I want to listen to music that is ‘similar’ to Beck, for example, simply because other people’s tastes straddle the two. But you can specify a tag – eg jazz – and have a reasonably consistent listening experience.
- Musicovery’s great insight is that you tend to be in a certain mood when listening to music, or want to specify music to reflect your mood or change it. So you can specify whether to listen to light-hearted music, or something a bit darker, and the tempo, choose across many genres, even specify the decade of the music, and be up and running with a very pretty Flash-based interface. It can throw up interesting results – I did not know there was a jazz version of OK Computer, for example – and I like it for that. It truly is music discovery.
So Spotify needs to find its niche within these established players. On first glance it looks very much like a greyscale version of iTunes but is initially blank, which I found quite offputting at first. I just wanted to see at least some initial offerings to choose from.
But type in your artist and it immediately springs to life. And how. It’s incredibly responsive. Click a track and it almost instantaneously starts to stream. It’s very easy to create or share playlists. And you can choose to listen to ‘stations’ made up of genres and, like Musicovery, timelines. 1960s Heavy Metal digs up Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild, while 1950s Reggae gives… interesting results.
What we have here is essentially an iTunes interface to an online streaming music database. It’s designed from the ground up to live online. And this is where I don’t get part of Spotify’s proposition. As far as I can tell it’s a completely self-contained system. I doesn’t seem to offer any capability to integrate with other systems. For example, you can’t scrobble audio with Last.FM. And, more importantly, there are no widgets, for example for Facebook.
Isn’t this missing a trick? If you’re web-based then isn’t this something you would immediately implement? I can only imagine this is part of the plan, to be rolled out post-beta (assuming it’s not a permanent beta like so many web apps nowadays), or maybe there are licensing restrictions.
I also think another challenge for Spotify – as with all the other systems mentioned so far – is the sound quality. It’s ok on my low-end DigiTheatre surround-sound system in the lounge because that’s not a hi-fi. But when I listen to it on my studio monitors, the limitations of the sample rate become immediately apparent. It’s compressed, there are artefacts, and a like-for-like comparison with my own music library shows how locally-stored MP3s are far superior. Hmmmm.
This is where Simplify Media could offer an alternative. It enables music sharing across IP, and integrates with iTunes and Winamp. Download the client – at a hefty 14MB it’s not exactly light – set up an account, and share your music. Get up to 30 friends to do the same and suddenly you have access to many thousands of tracks.
Last night, for example, I listened to the Bob Dylan tracks on my friend Paul Borge‘s MacBook Pro, in my lounge. Quite apart from the mind-blowing technical feat here – from his machine, across his wireless network, across the web, through my wireless network and onto my machine – the sound came through with, as far as I could tell, original quality. It sparkled (inasmuch as one could describe Bob Dylan’s whine as ‘sparkling’).
Again Simplify Media doesn’t integrate with Last.FM scrobbling or Apple’s new Genius playlist feature, but you can kind of forgive this. It’s strictly a music sharing system, as opposed to fileshare, and I like it a lot.
What I’d really like to see is a system that enables the ‘DNA’ of the music to be tagged like Pandora, in a sort of ultra-high resolution folksonomy, not just broad categories such as genre; the community dynamics of Last.FM; the clever interface of Musicovery; the agility of Spotify; the quality of Simplify Media; and full integration with widgets across the most popular social networks.
Maybe each of these systems is addressing a different way of listening to music. But, in the same way as we’re getting aggregators of aggregators in Friendfeed, or blog editors that interface across many platforms such as Live Writer, I’m wondering whether someone, somewhere, is going to come up with a system that has all the advantages of each of these approaches, and none of the drawbacks.
Me? I’d have been quite happy with Pandora to be honest. Maybe I should move stateside.