Radio Your Way

pandoracrop.jpgFrom the Thursday, September 7 2006 Claremont Ealgle Times:

iPod, YouTube, MySpace – personal possessive adjectives are all over the Internet these days. To find the “new tastemakers,” said the New York Times recently, “music consumers are increasingly turning away from the traditional gatekeepers and looking instead to one another — to fellow fans, even those they’ve never met.”

Online stores like Amazon have long hinted at this approach’s potential; iTunes, Napster and Rhapsody also recommend similar artists to song buyers. Rhapsody has taken it a step further with Artist Radio – click on “James Taylor Radio,” for example, and you’ll hear a steady stream of JT interspersed with Jim Croce, Carole King and maybe something you’ve never heard before.

But the real revolution is in the rapidly evolving world of “community based radio” – not local outlets like WOOL-FM, but virtual stations formed from the shared musical DNA of a world of computer users. Sometimes, the listener is the DJ, sending their actual record collections – or, more accurately, digital versions of them – across the ether.

What follows is a look at three leaders in the field. Each is a free service, requiring only a broadband connection and a PC. Two, Pandora and last.fm, are Mac compatible.

Last.fm

Last.fm calls itself part of a “social music revolution” – and in another nod to the immensely popular website MySpace, signing up automatically creates a personal home page. Users employ keywords, called tags, to build their radio stations. For example, presenting the tags “slacker,” folk rock” and “psychedelic folk” produced an eclectic mix of neo-Celtic paired with Danish post-rockers Foetus. Band names can also be used; the combination of the mainstream “Led Zeppelin,” “Beatles” and “Rolling Stones” delivered U2 and Eric Clapton songs in short order.

The community aspect is fostered through user groups, blog-like “journals” and “friends” with similar interests. Type in the name of your favorite band, and their multi-tabbed home page will pop up. Clicking on the “fans” tab will locate users who also like the band, and drilling down will produce more user details, including their most-listened to songs, group memberships and journal entries.

Users build personal preferences by selecting a “love” or “ban” icon as each streamed song is played. The process, called “audioscrobbling,” refines an ever-maturing musical profile, and matches it to others. All of the music played through the Last.fm player can be purchased with a click, though oddly only in compact disc format – there are no links to iTunes or other digital music stores.

Rating: Ease of use – 3.5, Accuracy – 3, Overall – 3

Mercora

Using a loophole in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Silicon Valley-based Mercora allows users to hear music collections from all over the world, and webcast their CD collections as well. Every member is a de factor peer-to-peer (P2P) DJ looking to build an audience.

Mercora is Windows-only (a Mac version is in the works), and runs in a browser, but a standalone application is required to build playlists for webcasting. It’s a “network of networks,” each adhering to the copyright laws of different countries, and users must click through a complex legal agreement before they start the program.

Their “user contributed network” is a community in the strictest sense of the word. There’s a link to the top 100 DJs on their hard to manage home page (it’s not auto-generated like last.fm, and the editing options are hidden). Each DJ Icon indicates the member’s online (webcasting) status. Clicking on the DJ icon brings up a home page; Mercora’s DJs typically offer anywhere from 1 to 5 streams.

The top DJs manage their content with care, but they only represent a small fraction of the overall Mercora community. This can cause some odd genre blending, a situation that happens most frequently when using the music search option to find a song or artist. For example, a search for “Rolling Stones” led to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a reasonable choice by any measure. The homepage of DJ hosting the song, however, wasn’t nearly as mainstream, with an odd mix of hardcore rap and soft rock. Because most users simply point to folders on their computer to add music, without providing much context, the results can be jarring.

Rating: Usability – 4, Accuracy – 2, Overall – 3

Pandora

The most fully realized personal radio station to date grew from the lofty-sounding “Music Genome Project,” an effort to identify the building blocks of music. Where last.fm and Mercora mostly rely on the wisdom of crowds for their picks, Pandora is a professorial music theorist that considers terms unfamiliar to most people for its choices. Type in “Eagles” and Pandora will search not for classic Seventies bands, but tracks with “subtle use of vocal harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, major key tonality, a dynamic male vocalist and acoustic rhythm guitars.”

You always knew you liked laid-back southern California rock. Pandora tells you why, and suggests following “New Kid In Town” with Fleetwood Mac and Boston. Users rate recommendations with a Tivo-like thumbs up or down. This refines the station’s mood for listeners who like “New Kid in Town,” but consider “Life in the Fast Lane” too hard.

Users can build an unlimited number of stations, and modify them to be more thematically open-minded. For example, a Beatles station could be augmented with Nirvana and Pearl Jam to create a jangle grunge stream.

Pandora is the most helpful in locating new music. Cycling through the Eagles, Dixie Chicks, Byrds and Nickel Creek led to tasteful track from the obscure band the Tennessee Boltsmokers. Most won’t note the “acoustic sonority” of “Hit The Road,” but may eventually buy the record. Pandora users can click to purchase music from both Amazon and the iTunes Music Store.

Pandora also sells a network-based standalone radio, the “Squeezebox,” which can be plugged into a stereo system. It costs around $250, and comes in both wired and wireless models.

Rating: Usability – 5.0, Accuracy 4.5, Overall 4.5

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