The World of Social Music – Last.fm, Pandora, and imeem
Like music? Holy crap! I do too!
Music has always been an integral part of my life, and I have tried to experience as many musical outlets as possible. Performing, attending concerts, recording and even working in music have all done so much for my appreciation of music. At the end of the day, however, it all comes down to LISTENING (the thing you do with your ears). Its a simple process, but the amount of musical channels we can choose from can make it very difficult to concentrate on music we want to hear.
With so many ways to listen to music (radio, CDs, concerts, media player, internet…), I have gravitated towards social music websites that (attempt to) play nicely with other musical mediums and also easily introduce me to new music. There are a host of music-oriented social sites out there, but I have gravitated towards 3 of the more popular: Pandora, Last.fm, and imeem.
While none of the three get near to my ideal music-listening experience, they each have their own inherent strengths and unique weaknesses. After much usage on all three platforms, I’ve rated them in this order:
I use imeem primarily to listen to any song on demand. Unlike pandora or last.fm, imeem allows you to search for just about any song and play the full version right there on the spot. Last.fm is making progress in this area, however, and imeem seems to be losing battles to keep full-length tracks up instead of chopping them into 30 second previews.
- On demand listening – As stated above, imeem makes it easy to search for a particular track and listen to it right there on the spot.
- Extremely social – imeem is a social network that revolves around media, so its easy to find people who listen to the same music as you. Of course you can friend, message, comment, feature, blah blah whatever any imeem user, and even join groups based on your tastes . My personal favorite is the “I Hate Phil Collins” group, which apparently really doesn’t like Phil Collins (note: I enjoy Phil’s work in Genesis and some of his solo stuff, just not the “I’m shackled in Disney’s basement forced to write schlocky soundtracks” era).
- Customizable – Out of all three social music platforms, imeem definitely has the most customizable interface, allowing users to change colors, background images, and quite a few of the basic CSS-controlled objects.
- Tries to be too many things – imeem definitely bites off way too much more than it can chew. “Hey let’s share/feature/favorite/embed/rate music, videos, photos, blogs, playlists…” Way too much going on. Leave a lot of the features to the already-successful social sites and concentrate on a few of your strong features.
- Poorly-tagged songs – Did you know Led Zeppelin did “Dream On?” Neither did I. That’s what you get for letting a 14 year old upload music.
- Discovering new artists isn’t tailored to the user – They have a “discover” button that takes you to a random song, which is cool, but if you’re going to be putting the energy into creating a strong music profile, you should be able to use that profile to discover new artists based on your interests.
Last.fm is both an online radio station and a client that sits on your computer and beams whatever you’re listening to in iTunes, WMP or Winamp up to your online profile. It gathers your listening history, and then generates a radio station based on your listening history. Pretty awesome if you ask me. I use less as an online radio station and more for keeping track of the songs I listen to on my computers.
- “Scrobbling” is awesome – Scrobbling is the process of taking what your media player is playing and shooting it up to your online profile. From there it makes recommendations and lays it out in a beautiful histogram. Want to see how many times you’ve listened to the Beatles compared to Culture Club? Last.fm is the tool for you.
- See what your friends are listening to – Once you become friends with other Last.fm users, you can see what they’ve just listened to. I’ve freaked out my girlfriend by stating “Gorillaz are awesome” as soon as she started playing “Kids with Guns.”
- Very Social – Last.fm is social in the areas where its supposed to be for a music site. Unlike imeem that tries to do everything, Last.fm allows you to connect with bands, similar listeners, labels, and groups that revolve around the music you love.
- Full-length Tracks – Because last.fm got snatched up by CBS, they had the clout to negotiate with the big record labels to offer full-length tracks from artists on the Big 4 labels.
- Shaky platform – technical difficulties are aplenty with last.fm. Many times scrobbling seems to freeze and not submit your tracks to your profile, and listening data seems to get lost sometimes. This problem is not helped by the following point…
- Hostile staff – Their staff seems angry whenever users post problems, and never seem to be happy to help users out. I don’t want to cut them down too much, because they have a good thing going, they should just learn to say “Oh sorry about that, here’s what you can do…” a little more.
- No multiple listening histories – One of the things I was most excited about when I signed up for last.fm was the prospect of importing my listening data from Windows Media Player and iTunes on my home computer, my work computer, and my laptop. I was so excited to see what my complete listening history over the past 5 years was like. How quickly my bubble was burst. Unfortunately, the last.fm client only imports your listening data from ONE media player on ONE computer (the first computer you install the client on). It would really be amazing if last.fm could import multiple listening histories so recommendations would be more accurate and charts would better represent the user rather than one computer.
Last.fm seems like its still pretty fresh and has a lot of potential. I’m willing to stick around and grow with the platform in the hopes that one day, my favorite artists will be laid out in a beautiful histogram depicting how often I’ve listened to them.
As a constant seeker of new music, I have found a best friend in Pandora. As a web and Flash designer, I love the interface, usability, and even the creative way they display ads (a creative blend of CSS background images and Flash banner that change as the song changes or the user interacts with the interface). I will admit I’ve used Pandora longer than Last.fm and imeem so I may be biased, but there’s a reason I keep coming back. Pandora is simple the same way Stumble is simple to use. “Thumbs up or Thumbs down. Like it or not. If you like it, we’ll throw more similar stuff at you; if you don’t, we’re sorry.” Insanely easy, increasingly targeted to your interests. How cool is that!
- Helps you find new music based on your tastes – This aspect of Pandora is what makes it stand out from the pack. Because Pandora uses data from its Music Genome Project, the correlation between songs goes beyond “related artists,” as Last.fm’s recommended radio station does. I’ve discovered so many bands that I now consider my favorites through Pandora. Bonus: you can bookmark songs and artists, listen to a preview of any bookmarked song, and buy it from iTunes or Amazon in a snap.
- Ease of Use – As stated above, the thumbs up/thumbs down approach to music is incredibly easy to grasp and even more fun as you get going with a station. The more you rate, the more specific your station mimics your musical tastes.
- Social Features limited – You might say, “Hold up, yo yo gangsta dawg, that’s a weakness!” but you’d be wrong. Pandora’s social features are exactly what you would want from such a streamlined and simple service: see what your friends recently bookmarked and listened to, message them, and most importantly listen to their personalized station. Its great to see what someone else’s musical tastes conjures up in the Pandora machine.
- Repetition – Because I listen to Pandora for extended periods of time, I’ve noticed that after a couple hours the same songs begin to replay. In a typical 8 hour workday, I start to get a lot of duplicates. Sometimes the only way to work around it is to give a previously thumbs-upped track a thumbs down just so it will quit playing the song. The obvious disadvantage is that you don’t ever want to give CAKE thumbs down. Ever.
- Limited Integration – Pandora lives in its own universe, and unless you want to shell out some dough to get a player that streams Pandora in your house, you have to go to the Pandora website in order to partake in its greatness. This is where Last.fm has the advantage. Its not intrusive and doesn’t make you change your listening habits in order to benefit from the service, and also can scrobble your iPod. I’m sure Pandora’s working on ways to make itself more ubiquitous, but for now, pandora.com is the only place to listen.
- Its hard to add a friend – I know. You’re saying, “You just said you liked the limited social functions!” and you’d be right. All I’m saying is that if I want to add someone as a friend, I should be able to do it without having to exert much effort.
I hope this as least helped one person. I do enjoy all three of the services I talked about, and I would like to enjoy more. What do YOU use? (My buddy Andrew recently got me onto the Hype Machine, which is freaking great for finding new underground music, but don’t know enough yet to write about it). Do you have any tricks for Last.fm, Pandora, or imeem? Let me know! Post a comment. Disagree with what I said? Let me know (so we can roshambo on a 5 ft platform above a pungee pit).