Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Launchcast v. Pandora

The web has transformed radio. Existing stations like KCRW in Santa Monica and XFM in Dublin can now transmit globally. Internet-only stations like Digitally Imported for electronica and soma fm for some local flavor can format more tightly than would ever be commercially viable on terrestrial radio. And, software like Shoutcast (free) and Live365 (small fee) makes it simple to broadcast on your own. However, the most revolutionary change has been the creation of services like Launchcast and Pandora that build custom play lists tailored to your musical preferences.

Start-up Pandora is the newest and slickest offering. I used it briefly this past summer when it was in beta and thought their library was too small and their recommendation system too quirky, but glowing reviews in the blogsphere and from Warren prompted me to take a more thorough look.

Getting started with Pandora couldn’t be any easier. Just go to the main page and enter an artist or song that exemplifies the type of music you want to hear. Pandora then creates a station that will play songs that are musically similar to the one you selected. Programming is done based on analysis of song structure, not genre or other classification system.

Let’s say you are in the mood for something mellow like Sarah McLachlan. Tell that to Pandora and it will create a Sarah station by searching for other songs that feature “mellow rock instrumentation, folk influences, [and] major key tonality.” You can further adjust what the Sarah station broadcasts by explicitly adding artists or giving tracks you don’t like the thumbs down (literally). Listen to my Sarah station

Pandora’s Flash-based UI is as simple and intuitive as it is gorgeous. For every track played, it displays cover art and an option to explain why the song was selected. Pandora also offers links to iTunes and Amazon, and a handy bookmark-able URL with a sample of the song.

Pandora let’s you maintain 100 stations, and it works better when you create many stations rather than try to combine diverse styles and artists in one. Their approach is unique and it has its strengths and weaknesses.

For my first station I wanted to create something cutting edge so I typed in Caged Baby and it started playing their track “Hello There.” Because they also have “prominent use of synth,” two older Human League and Severed Heads songs were in the first four suggestions. There is no way to tell Pandora that I only want new stuff.

Conversely, I wanted to create an 80’s station that sounds like Yaz. Pandora made all the right initial selections (Erasure, Depeche Mode, New Order, Dead or Alive) but it also offered newer bands like The Magnetic Fields. I tried to give it more hints by adding artists like Ultravox, and then I ended up in pop hell with David Hasselhoff and Rick Springfield. I couldn’t hit the “I don’t like this” link fast enough. Listen to my 80’s synth station

If you pick a type of music where the line separating genius from cheesy is fine, Pandora selections will seem more random. Apparently that line is quite fine for synth pop and electronica but much bolder for acoustic, folk and jazz.

My experience creating a jazz station illustrated a different characteristic of Pandora. Initially I told it I liked a vocalist (Johnny Hartman) and everything was vocal. Then I added a tenor saxophonist (Ben Webster) and I was treated to a string of instrumental tracks. I added more vocalists (Ella, Sarah, Mel) and more well-known trumpeters and saxophonists, but Pandora still does not do a good job of mixing things up. Things could be worse - as I type this I have been treated to a block of songs from Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis, Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Kenny Burrell and Stan Getz. But, it would be nice to mix a vocal back in. Listen to my jazz station

Pandora is free and its 128Kpbs stream is high enough quality for almost all listening situations. They do not have a classical offering, and, you can only skip a certain number of songs each hour, but these are the only significant limitations on this interesting service. Listen to my stations or, better yet, create your own. It’s fun, and it will only get better as their medium-sized library expands. Keep it simple, though. For best results, start with a song and Pandora will help you discover more tracks like that song. If you are interested in hearing something different, start a new station.

Yahoo! Launchcast has been around for six years and I have been using it for the past two, ever since Scott prompted me to try it. Unlike Pandora, Launchcast offers hundreds of pre-programmed radio stations to choose from, and it takes a very different approach to personalization.

With Launchcast, you create one station and if your tastes cross genres you can filter your station to only play certain types of music. For example, I have rated electronic, alternative, indie and jazz artists. My station can format a mix of these or I can use “moods” to filter based on genre to play only jazz.

Launchcast’s recommendation approach is different as well. It relies on user ratings for songs and artists and collaborative filtering to decide what to play. For example, if I tell Launchcast I like Death Cab for Cutie, American Analog Set and David Wilcox, it will see which other bands people who like these artists also enjoy. It works very well as they have more than 6 billion user ratings to draw on.

It is not hard to get started with Launchcast but nothing is as simple as Pandora. Log in with a Yahoo! id and a wizard guides you through initial ratings. The more you rate the better its suggestions are but, fortunately, assigning a rating is very easy. You can specify preferences for how much new (unrated by you) music is played, and Launchcast lets you add “influencers” – people whose music tastes you like. Scott is one of my influencers.

If you use a Yahoo! co-branded dsl (SBC, ATT, etc), Launchcast Plus is bundled for free with your internet service. Plus is the version I have been using, and its significant advantages are no commercials and an unlimited number of songs skips (great for finding new music). If you don’t use a Yahoo-flavor dsl, you can experiment with the free version and subscribe to Launchcast Plus for a few dollars a month if you like it. To get a sense of Launchcast, listen to my station.

So which is best? It depends. I was very impressed with Pandora for jazz as it made some wonderful suggestions, but I’ve done better with Launchcast for new and indie music, areas where Launchcast’s library appears much larger. My advice, try them both while we wait for an ideal service that uses collaborative filtering to sort good music from bad and computer song-structure analysis to help define the mood.


At 10:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you left out many of the fine features that the $5/mo gets you with launchcast plus, the 3rd level of service for launch.

plus combined with the yahoo music engine gets you the ability, like some other pay services, to download all the music you want onto your harddrive and listen at your command. this allows you to download whole albums and listen as the artist intended. as long as your $5/mo is being paid, you own those songs. of course DRM keeps them from being permanently yours, so you can't burn them to CD. like itunes et al, you can pay additional ($0.79 in this case) to own those rights. i find LCP + YME is a great value, as i can quickly download whole discographies and keep only what i want. at times i stay in this mode; other times i like the radio mode where i get pleasant surprises of new yet similar music.

the fourth level of launch? $12/mo gets you all of the LC+ features to go on your plays-for-sure portable device (notably not ipod, but others like creative labs, iriver, etc).


At 6:10 PM, Blogger paul said...

Scott, thanks for the clarification. You are right, Yahoo! does have a number of music offerings.

As you explain, Yahoo! maintains a music store where you can individual songs to play on your computer and music non-iPod portable devices. Like Rhapsody and Napster, they also offer “all you can eat” versions of this for $5-6 (Yahoo! Music Unlimted) and $10-12 (Yahoo! Music Unlimited to go) a month. Their DRM lets you download as much music as you want and it will play as long as you continue to subscribe.

In addition, Yahoo! Launchcast comes in different versions. The most basic free version is burdened by commercials and not recommended. Launchcast Plus is much better, and for many of my readers it is also free because they subscribe to SBC (formerly PacBell now AT&T) dsl. Launchcast Plus is $3-4 per month otherwise and a good deal at that price.

A final point omitted from my review is that Launchcast has tens of thousands of music videos that are completely free to view. Check out their top 100.

At 9:22 PM, Anonymous WP said...

Great entry, Paul. You've hit on the essence of Pandora. It's extraordinary when you're in the mood for music that "sounds like" other music. I like Pandora because, more often than not, I'm in an experimental mood. The selection from Pandora is fresh and interesting. I frequently find myself bookmarking songs for later purchase.

If you want to narrow by date, specific genre, etc., you've got the wrong service. When I'm interested in a play list that's more specific, I usually go straight to my iTunes library and pick specific songs or use the iTunes filtering capabilities. Of course, I don't do this too much any more since I love it when Rick Springfield comes on right after Erasure and Yaz. ;-)

At 2:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One important difference between the two is that Yahoo Launchcast only works under MS Windows:

LAUNCHcast Browser Requirements

I used Launchcast Plus for a couple of years and loved it, but I now need a service that works on a Mac as well. I've been using Pandora for a couple weeks and enjoy it, but agree with the comments about it's quirkiness. - Alex


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