Online Music Services

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I’ve threatened for a few months now to write a Pandora vs Last.fm post. Every week, I decide to finally write it, and then procrastinate again, for numerous reasons. Recently, I decided to boil it down to a very few points, just to get it out (finally).

But, before doing so, I decided to do a little research, since a number of things have changed recently (some dramatically, like Last.fm’s recent announcement about being able to stream songs for free, up to three times).

In doing the research, I found this blog post which summarizes and categorizes 38 different online music services (including the ones I intended to cover). While he doesn’t go into depth on any one of them, it’s a fantastic resource to decide what sites you might wish to explore.

I wouldn’t have, and couldn’t have done as good and exhaustive a job putting that list together. Therefore, I can now (happily) concentrate on the few things that I specifically wanted to get off my chest.

In January 2007 I signed up for an account on Last.fm. At the time, I was mostly listening to XMRadio (I posted about my XM Radio experience here). At the time, we hadn’t had our explosion of discovering new music. Last.fm sounded like a good idea, a way to discover new music by typing in an artist that you already liked.

It amused me for about a month, then I got tired of it and stopped using it completely. The main reasons were that at the time, they never included any songs by the artist you entered to begin with, and they often ran out of similar artists (quickly sometimes) if you didn’t start with a mega-star.

Some things have changed, some things even dramatically (recently), as you can now pick specific songs by specific artists to hear, up to three times each, for free. Still, the biggest value (to me) in Last.fm, is one that I think is interesting, but doesn’t grab me personally all that much. That’s the ability to have friends, and see what they’re listening to, in real-time, in graphs of the past, etc. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool, and I check out my own listening habits on my profile on occasion, but I only have three friends at the moment, and I’m not desperate to increase that list. 😉

Months later, I finally started using an alternate service that I had been aware of for a while, Pandora. I am dramatically happier with Pandora than with Last.fm. If you start with an artist, in addition to hearing similar artists, you also hear a ton of music from the artist you started with mixed in as well.

Their selection of similar artists is fantastic. I can listen for hours on end and it’s extremely rare for me to hear something that I feel the need to rate poorly, or skip, etc. I’ve discovered a number of new artists via Pandora (and yes, I’ve bought their music, so Pandora helped promote them!).

I have a number of stations, and I most often play a quick mix of four of my stations. The only complaint I have about Pandora (and it’s extremely minor) is that they repeat the same songs a little more frequently than I’d like (it could be hours before a repetition, but sometimes, I listen an entire day while working at Zope). To be sure, they are repeating songs that I love, and that I’ve thumbed up, so it’s not terribly annoying. 😉

They too have some kind of friend stuff, but I have zero friends on Pandora (and I’m not looking for any), so I don’t really know how it works. I’ve added the Pandora App to my Facebook account, so when I’m listening to Pandora, friends of mine on Facebook can see what stations I’m listening to on Pandora.

I have over 7000 songs in iTunes, so I really don’t need an online service to find something to listen to. That said, I still listen a bunch, for three reasons:

  1. Convenience. I don’t need to think about what I want to listen to, just what type of music I’m in the mood for. I then don’t have to operate anything, the music just continues to come at me. I can pause a song, and come back to it hours later, and it picks up exactly from that point.
  2. Discover new music. I have tons, but every once in a while, it’s nice to wander into new territory.
  3. Surprise! Even if Pandora were to serve me songs that I already own, the order comes as a surprise, so it’s often like a little gift. Sure, I could turn on shuffle in iTunes, but I’d still have to pick at a minimum a genre, in order to get a similar experience, and Pandora keeps it even narrower than that, in a very nice way.

I had a few other things I wanted to cover, specifically, but I’m going to punt on them for now. With one exception, and I welcome any thoughts on this particular topic.

A number of bloggers have some sort of streaming widget on their site. Some even have more than one. Others have links to mp3 songs that can be downloaded (whether they mean you to or not).

While I applaud the desire to share music as widely as possible, and understand that it can easily end up creating a much larger audience for the artists in question, in the end, something feels wrong about it. I can’t imagine that the majority of bloggers are getting specific permission from the artists or the label.

If it’s only available via streaming, it’s a little easier for me to swallow. While some technical types will be able to capture the stream if they want, the overwhelming majority of people won’t bother, even if there are software downloads that they can use to do it for them.

But, when the link can be right-clicked, and saved, it amounts to mass distribution of copyrighted works. Am I missing something here?

I have promoted many artists in these posts, often with links included. That said, I’ve never once considered offering up a link to something that I own of theirs. I link to their site, to their MySpace site, to YouTube videos, etc. I’d love to attach particular songs to my posts, but again, I just feel that without explicit permission, I’m taking a liberty that isn’t mine to take.

So, any contrary opinions out there? Some of the people who are freely sharing music on their blogs are people I respect enormously, so I’m not saying that they are doing anything wrong, just that I don’t understand all the ins and outs yet. If I don’t get satisfactory answers here, I might post a comment on some their sites, but I don’t want to appear to be pointing a finger, which is the last thing I want to do!