Friday, July 15, 2011

Opening Pandora's box...or URL

Over the last few years the mighty power that is the internet has completely changed how we find and listen to music. I'm not talking about the ability to download 10 albums in 10 minutes through P2P torrents or mediafire. No, I'm talking about the wonderful world of music recommendation sites. While there are quite a few, when it comes to internet radio and music recommendation the one that most people are familiar with is Pandora Radio. But, as usual, for every good thing there is something better but the trick is to find it (or them).

Music recommendation sites such as Pandora, Grooveshark, and have now made it seemingly effortless to discover new music and artists that are similar to what you already like, although they use very different methods to do so. Discovering new music that you thoroughly enjoy gives a sense of joy, excitement, and a great rewarding feeling. Here is a brief rundown on a few services that I use and pros/cons of each. 

Pandora: The spawn of the Music Genome Project, Pandora is probably almost everyone's favorite radio stations and music recommendation site. The approach to music recommendation by Pandora is very technological; based on the inherent quality of the music. With over 400 musical attributes assigned to each song by actual humans Pandora does a pretty decent job at putting together a selection of similar artists (based on the attributes of the initial query) and coming up with new music, however, if left unattended for too long it sometimes, I have found, it strays quite a bit. By leaving it unattended I mean refusing to interact with the playlist. The 'thumbs up' and 'thumbs down' buttons for each song tells the program whether you like that song or not and then Pandora collects this data and adapts to your tastes. So, to get the best experience from Pandora you have to train it to give you what you want. As you listen you can view the lyrics, artist bio, and similar artists to the one currently playing. You get to skip songs you don't like but there is a limit of six skips per hour per station and a 'thumbs down' also counts as a skip. The major downside is that Pandora only allows you to listen to 40 hours of music per month if you do not have the subscription service. In addition, it is only available in the United States so if you are traveling outside of the country you will need alternatives. However, despite it's downsides Pandora will definitely throw some music at you that you haven't heard before

Grooveshark: This is another online music recommendation service with a social aspect. Grooveshark recommendations come through similarities in members' profiles, playlists, and favorites. It offers a radio station where you can listen to different genres just by clicking a button or putting in an artist and letting the music recommendation engine churn out similar tunes. With Grooveshark you can add songs to playlists from the radio player or you have the option of uploading your own songs to build playlists. Like Pandora, Grooveshark benefits from adaptive learning through the use of the 'happy face' and 'sad face' with each song. In terms of interface, Grooveshark is less like a website and more like an audio player. Compared to Pandora, Grooveshark is a much less frustrating experience. With Grooveshark listening time caps are eliminated and so are limits on skipping. Besides building custom playlists you can also listen to other users' playlists and when you want to see what's popular you just click the "Popular" icon which takes you to a playlist of the current popular songs on Grooveshark. Unlike Pandora you won't get the artist information/bio or a list of similar artists so you just have to wait and see who pops up next on the radio. Overall, Grooveshark is more community-based and just on this basis alone is more versatile and offers more options than Pandora. Oh, and you can access it outside of the US. Plus. Now take the best of Pandora and Grooveshark and put them together and you get something that begins to look like has a good music recommendation service with a well-founded community base. Unlike Pandora's technical recommendation algorithm, and like Grooveshark,'s is more social. Music is primarily recommended based on a collaborative filter i.e if you like a song/artist and I like the same song/artist then will likely recommend other songs/artists I like to you. As a result you may end up with some songs with which you are already familiar but you will also get a great exposure to a lot that may be outside of your current playlist. The music is streamed through an in page flash-based player which runs a slideshow of pictures of the current artist that are uploaded by other users. Users are also able to add artist information, album artwork etc. which makes it's own little music wikipedia.  Besides making radio stations based on songs or artists, also keeps a list of your recent tracks and tells you how many times you have listened to an artist and song. There is also a downloadable desktop program called "Scrobbler" which integrates with iTunes and track what you listen to and feeds it into your profile. Based on this, can build stations based on your music library and when an artist outside of your library is played it tells you based on which of your library artists the selection was made. You can also listen to stations that are based on other users with similar musical tastes/listening habits. Another great feature of is that it tells you if the artist who is currently playing is on tour and provides their dates and events. Cool, yea. For quick music discovery you can simply go to the site and type in an artists and click the similar artists tab to the left and get a plethora of recommendations. One thing I must say about is that I can find and build stations around artists and songs that I can't even find on Pandora or Grooveshark. This is because once an artist has been "scrobbled" by a user it automatically generates a page for that new artist.

Music Plasma: Music Plasma is not an internet radio site so you don't get to actually listen to any music. Despite that, it is still a great, quick tool for music discovery. You can create the musical equivalent to a gene network map using Music Plasma. You simply type in an artist which pops up on the map. Then you click on the artist and select expand and it connects a bunch of similar artists to your main query. You can repeat this for each artist as they appear and create elaborate artist network maps that will keep you busy exploring music for weeks. The data that goes into Music Plasma is provided by and Amazon.

I like to use each of these as a compliment to the others because they employ different methods in their music recommendation service and I believe that there is value in both the social and technological approach to music discovery.

Other ways that I use to explore new music is through Soundcloud and Mixcloud. Excellent ways to get on to brand new music...if the artist is an active member of either cloud community. I also follow (on Twitter) or like (on Facebook) artists that I enjoy and sometimes I get some good recommendations through their mentions on feeds. I also take a look to see who's my artists' artist...who do the artists that I like and follow, like and follow. 

Other notable music recommendation sites: iTunes Genius, iLike.

Happy Discovery!

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