Published on October 13th, 2005 | by Greg0
The Future of Radio?
This isn’t about podcasting, or XM, or even about another downloading service. We’re talking about Last.fm (previously mentioned), Live365, and Musicstrands- music software that allows you to find and listen to new music. No purchase necessary, no CDs or MP3s or dealing with other people who might recommend, god save their souls, that new song, what’s it called… oh yeah, Hollaback Girl.
No, music software has come a long way. To see how far, simply download the Last.fm client, which pretty much sets a benchmark for simple and effective ways to listen to music. You type in an artist or song, it combs the database and confirms it with you, then creates a radio station and starts tossing you tracks it thinks you might like. The recommendations are based on the habits of other Last.fm users, and in general are surprisingly good.
The audio quality is near-CD (128 Kbps), and these are complete tracks instead of simply samples. You cannot fast forward or rewind, but you can skip a track, as well as rate it highly or poorly. The Last.fm player is remarkably easy to use, and though it doesn’t list “tags” or other recommended songs, it does show you the information (including album art) for the currently playing song. It’s free, the music loads quickly and without artifacts, and there are no commercials.
On the other hand, Live365, which bills itself as the World’s Largest Internet Radio Network, allows you to choose from a lot of stations but all of them are created by someone. You can create your own station by creating a playlist from available songs (and there are a lot), but you won’t get recommendations. In addition, there are a ton of commercials, the audio quality is mediocre (16-64k!), and they keep trying to get you to upgrade to “premium” service, which of course destroys the advantage of radio- why would someone pay for a service like this? Live365, however, does allow DJs to do talk radio, and create content beyond mere music. No large downloads are necessary- it doesn’t come with it’s own software, you simply use existing MP3 stream-capable programs (like Winamp) to play their feeds.
Finally, Musicstrands appears to be a poor man’s version of Last.fm, mixed with a poor man’s version of Live365. Whereas Last.fm came with it’s own player, Musicstrands uses iTunes. Last.fm streams new music to you, Musicstrands simply makes recommendations based on what you listen to and can direct you to a page where you can listen to a small, low-quality sample (sometimes). Live365 allows you to make your own station and have people listen, Musicstrands offers the same- except the songs are all low-quality 30-second clips. The recommendations are occasionally impressive (as long as your music is properly ID3 tagged), and the list of tags is helpful, but Musicstrands is quite simply not as useful or powerful as Last.fm or Live365.
So, how were the recommendations? We put the three programs through the paces, checking to see what music they might recommend and how difficult they were to setup. Last.fm continually surprised us with accurate, interesting suggestions- from Roni Size to Catatonia to some older soundtrack music that usually fit the bill. Musicstrands made some neat recommendations, but also made some faux pas. Green Day is good stuff, but probably not what we want when we are playing Pink Floyd. It also failed to recognize a lot of our music (even when properly tagged).
Stick to Last.fm, an even better program than Pandora, and without any of the restrictions of that software.