The latest generation of internet-based music apps are facilitating the biggest transformation in music discovery since the introduction of the wireless radio; not only by successfully emulating the characteristics of traditional music discovery mechanisms (e.g. radio, television, magazines, record shops, mixtapes, live concerts), but also by capitalising on the internet's inherent qualities to introduce genuinely new means of music discovery (e.g. collaborative filtering).
Where the first-generation of internet-based music apps were primarily concerned with the acquisition of music (Napster v1 was geared toward searching for and then downloading a track that you already knew you wanted), the new breed of online music services are far more focused on discovery, with ownership becoming increasingly less important.
This focus on discovery can be broken down into three key areas:
- Discovering music which is new to you
- (Re)discovering the music you already own/know
- Discovering people who share your taste in music
- User experience
- Caliber of recommendations
- Integration with users' off-line music libraries
- Listen/purchase options
Still the daddy of music discovery services, Last.fm keeps track of all your personal listening (via the unobtrusive Audioscrobbler Plug-in), offers consistently astute recommendations (based on collaborative filtering) and provides a comprehensive personalised streaming radio service.
Pros: Takes account of day-to-day listening, wealth of data and options, integration of community features
Cons: Site infrastructure sometimes struggles to keep up with volume of traffic resulting in slow-loading pages and out-of-date listening charts
Heavily indebted to Last.fm, MusicStrands offers a slick, feature-heavy interface and brings much of the functionality onto the desktop in the form of the MyStrands player download, which integrates with your default media player (supports iTunes and Windows Media Player) to provide real-time recommendations and tagging.
Pros: Integration with desktop media players, real-time recommendations (including music from Independents), mobile version, innovative labs development area
Cons: No streaming of full tracks - 30 second clips only, some dodgy metadata matching - 982 of the 5401 songs in my library weren't recognized
Streaming radio service which eschews the collaborative filtering model in favour of musical expertise, providing recommendations based on musical attributes as defined by the Music Genome Project, although you do get to choose an artist as the starting point for your musical journey and can vote on individual tracks.
Pros: Unexpected but apposite recommendations, insights into musical tastes
Cons: Lack of integration with personal off-line music collection, unsophisticated rating system
Small but perfectly formed, IndyTV is a 612Kb desktop app which downloads and plays you MP3s of independent artists and invites you to rate them out of 5 stars, learning your tastes over time. It then saves the MP3s in folders according to your ratings.
Pros: Simple but effective way to get exposed to new music, links to artist websites, tidy coding
Cons: US-bias, can be slow to download MP3s, variable quality, no-one you've ever heard of!
5.) Yahoo! LAUNCHcast Radio
Personalised streaming radio service based on initial user preferences, collaborative filtering and on-going ratings, compromised by intrusive upsell, poor browser support and paucity of alternative artists
Pros: Fully-featured pop-up player, wide selection of stations
Cons: Free version is ad-heavy, limited browser support, dominated by mainstream artists
Entirely web-based and structured around playlists, Soundflavour offers copious and surprisingly accurate recommendations based on your selection of tracks with 30 second clips and links to buy via iTunes or Amazon.
Pros: Broadly relevant recommendations, integration of music from Independents
Cons: No streaming of full tracks - 30 second clips only, lack of integration with off-line music library
7.) Mercora IMRadio
Billing itself as "the world's largest jukebox", Mercora IMRadio offers peer-to-peer streaming (not downloads) of user radio stations (not individual tracks) underpinned by Instant Messenger. The upside is a wide selection of stations, supported with extensive artist metadata. The downside is not being able to search for specific songs or skip tracks, which feels slightly retrograde in this environment. Mercora recently introduced Radio 2.0, a browser-based version of the desktop app with they're labeling as Alpha (I guess that's one way of standing out from all those Betas!)
Pros: Utilises open-source Ogg Vorbis format, includes podcasts and extensive supporting information (biogs, pictures, user reviews) courtesy of All Music Guide
Cons: Can't search for individual tracks, can't skip tracks, not available for Mac
An arresting graphical representation of relationships within the musical universe let down by a limited database and limited access to the music (just links to Amazon)
Pros: Innovative, engaging interface, also covers movies
Cons: Limited database of artists, no streaming option or integration with off-line music library
A very basic web-based recommendation engine which consistently produces good recommendations but fails to offer any meaningful integration with the actual music beyond purchase links through to assorted online retailers.
Pros: Provides reliable artist recommendations
Cons: Lackluster design, no streaming option or integration with off-line music library, first time I tried to access the site I got an SQL server error
The bizarrely monikered Audiobaba is a plug-in for iTunes or Windows Media Player which promises to grant the user "3 musical wishes", namely a Playlist Generator, Crystal Ball Recommendations and an Auto DJ. Unfortunately I can't comment on any of them as I gave up after the plug-in estimated that it's initial scan of my music would take 4 hours! Frankly, life's too short...
Cons: Time-consuming initial scan
Other music discovery apps (not reviewed):
Audiri - exclusively for unsigned and indies, features streaming radio and some downloads
The Echo Nest - not yet live
GarageBand.com - music from indies
GenieLab - lo-fi web-based recommendation site
Goombah - closed beta test
MusicIP Playground - nice flash interface enabling you to find "tracks that sound like..."
Musicmatch Music Discovery Engine - feature of Musicmatch Jukebox
Foafing the Music - developed by The Music Technology Group of Pompeu Fabra University