Spotify vs. Pandora

This may or may not come as a surprise to you, but I’m a big fan of Spotify. I mean, it combines my two great passions in life – listening to music, and making lists. I’d say that most of the music I listen to on a day-to-day basis reaches me through Spotify, more than any other medium. I’m well and truly addicted. Even when they started trying to squeeze out all the Spotify Free users last summer (for example, by limiting the number of times you could listen to any particular track, and placing a weekly limit on listening time), I bit the bullet and took out a subscription. I’ve become so used to Spotify that I couldn’t imagine life without it.

But for a brief period during my recent trip to the States, my bank account dried up and I ended up doing the unthinkable РI cancelled my Spotify subscription. Since only subscription members can use their Spotify accounts abroad, this meant my account was effectively suspended. I figured I could do without it for a little while, especially when there were  free alternatives available, like Pandora. How very wrong I was.

Spotify has only recently taken off in the US, and Pandora seems to be the main music-streaming service of choice for a lot of people. But it really is no replacement for Spotify – in fact, the way Pandora works is totally different. There’s much less control – you can’t just make a list of all the tunes you want to listen to, or stream an entire album from start to finish, as you could with Spotify. Instead, you tell Pandora the name of an artist you like, and Pandora then analyses this information and creates a radio station of similar artists that you might like.

It’s all dressed up in very technical-sounding terms – the first time you start an artist radio station, Pandora will play a song that “exemplifies this artist’s musical style”, based on the major/minor key, chord structures, vocal harmonies and god knows what else. They call it the musical genome project, and it’s all immensely clever, but does anyone actually take all these factors into account when choosing what music they’d like to listen to? I know I don’t. I think breaking down a song into all these mechanical parts kind of ruins the magic of it…music is supposed to be an art, not a science.

Pandora's approach to music

I wouldn’t really mind Pandora’s overly-analytical ways – after all, it’s just trying to be helpful and suggest new music, right? And if you just stuck to your own playlists on Spotify you’d never listen to anything different. But the problem is, the position of helpful new music generator has already been filled – by last.fm.

Last.fm works in a similar way to Pandora, with lots of different radio stations grouped by artist or genre. But in my opinion it works much better – mainly because, unlike Pandora, there are no annoying ad breaks. Also, last.fm isn’t as stuffy as Pandora about skipping tracks (Pandora won’t let you skip more than five tracks every hour – I think it doesn’t take rejection too well.) Last.fm can be just as analytical as Pandora, but it manifests this by compiling helpful charts of your top tracks and top artists, which it uses to make future recommendations. It also lets you compare your charts to those of other listeners, so you can see who has similar tastes to you. Boy, do they love their charts.

last.fm personified

For a while I experimented with Grooveshark, a somewhat sketchy streaming service that appears to be curated by individual users. I’m not sure how legitimate it is (Google and Apple have pulled the Grooveshark mobile app from their stores, under pressure from record labels), but it’s free, has no ads and tends to have a wider selection of hard-to-find recordings. For example, for a long time Spotify didn’t have any of Bright Eyes’ earlier albums (there are quite a lot of them), but I was able to track down every single release, right down to the most obscure B-side, on Grooveshark. I don’t know how they do it, and I’d rather not ask. Grooveshark is kind of the shady street hustler of streaming sites – they have everything you want, just don’t ask where it comes from.

Grooveshark, the dodgy dealer of music streaming

But here’s why Spotify beats them all: it does everything.

Say you want to listen to Belle and Sebastian’s entire back catalogue – you can do that on Spotify. You want to mix it up a bit and make a playlist of your favourite indie artists? Easy. How about keeping track of your listening habits over the past week? With Spotify’s Top Lists you can easily see what your top tracks/top artists have been, and you can even check the Top Lists for your country or the world. It won’t make a pretty chart out of all this data, but there’s always last.fm for that.

What if you get bored of your existing library, and want to discover something new? Previously, Spotify wouldn’t be my go-to place for new music recommendations. But now it’s evolved to the extent that you can discover new artists through “Spotify Radio” (similar to Pandora) and they’ve even incorporated a last.fm app, so you get the best of both worlds. You can listen to the music you know and love whenever you want, and when you want to branch out Spotify will point you in the right direction. What’s more, there’s a whole array of apps to aid your musical exploration – such as Moodagent, which identifies the “mood” of any track you select and compiles a playlist of songs with a similar mood. Or there’s TuneWiki, which automatically displays the lyrics of any song you play, in a karaoke-style scrolling format.

I’m not saying Spotify’s perfect – it’s pretty close, but there are a few glitches. Some artists have very limited tracks available (especially Oasis, The Beatles and Bob Dylan), but this is probably more to do with the record labels than Spotify itself. One thing that makes me uneasy is that Spotify and Facebook have been cosying up to each other a lot – in fact you can’t even set up a Spotify account now unless you have a Facebook account. I get that Spotify’s trying to become more “social,” but I think Facebook has a tendency to overshare (sometimes in a sneaky way, without you knowing), and I suspect when it comes to music, everyone has their guilty pleasures that they wouldn’t want the whole world to know about. Good thing Spotify recently introduced a “Private Session” mode – so you can listen to Taylor Swift and JLS as much as you want, and still maintain your hipster credibility…(shhh)

Overall, while there’s always room for improvement, I think Spotify still deserves a medal for being the all-round superhero of music platforms. I guess the proof’s in the pudding – after doing my best to get by with Pandora/last.fm/Grooveshark, I finally caved and reactivated my Spotify subscription. I’d barely lasted two weeks without it.

Spotify, the all-round champion

Hello World…

Hello and welcome to Shufflepod! This is my brand new music blog and it’s still a work in progress, so please bear with me during these early days. I promise it will be worth the wait!

A little bit about myself: I’m a music-loving twenty-something-year-old who just got back from an extended visit to New York – an awesome city with an incredibly varied music scene. I used to write a travel blog over at www.nshini.blogspot.com, but now my travels have come to an end for the foreseeable future. I’ve been back in England for over a week now, but I still haven’t managed to shake off the jetlag. The past few nights I’ve found myself staying up til the early hours and listening to music to pass the time…and that’s how this blog was born.

I listen to music pretty much all the time anyway, and I love talking about it.¬† I know a lot of people complain about today’s music industry – they say Top 40 artists are just soul-less clones who recycle the same hits over and over again, and no-one makes ‘real’ music anymore. Or if they do, it’s impossible to find.

Well, I don’t think that’s true. I actually quite like pop music and I think there are some pretty decent acts around now. But I also like discovering different, original artists – and I think that with the proliferation of sites like Spotify, Youtube and Last.fm, this has never been easier. My hope is that through this blog I’ll be able to share some of these new finds with you. At the same time, don’t be surprised if you find me analysing Jessie J’s latest video or critiquing Rihanna’s new album. It’s all music to me.

You can find good music anywhere – at a random gig, on a TV show, in a coffee shop…you just need to keep listening. And now with smartphone apps like Shazam, you can track down a tune in seconds and discover a whole new field of music. As an illustration – a couple of weeks ago I was shopping in Forever 21, and while none of the dresses really caught my eye, a couple of songs they were playing caught my ear. Thanks to Shazam I can now share these with you:

French Horn Rebellion – This Moment

This is a pretty snazzy disco-pop tune, although I don’t think the video really does it justice. It’s a pretty smart choice for shop-floor music – the upbeat melody and catchy beat made me want to strut around in a brand new outfit. I liked it enough to want to hear more, so I looked it up online. Here’s what last.fm has to say about French Horn Rebellion:

“French Horn Rebellion are Robert and David Perlick-Molinari, two brothers born and bred in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, currently residing in Brooklyn, NY. In 2007, younger brother Robert, found himself going down a career of classical French Horn performance. Standing at a crossroads, and fundamentally frustrated by the demands of mastering such an instrument (that he knew was almost impossible), he finally asked his brother David to rebel with him, and together they embarked on a life-long creative journey.”

Sounds like an interesting transition from classical music to electro-rock, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them. They released an album, “The Infinite Music of French Horn Rebellion”, in 2010. If you like the sound of “This Moment”, or are a fan of indie-pop dance acts like Foster the People or MGMT, then definitely give it a listen.

Telekinesis – I Cannot Love You

I actually misheard this as “I Can’t Not Love You”, which would have been sweet. Turns out there was no double negative, and it’s actually a pretty bitter song. But something about the racing bass guitar riff and hollow vocals had me hooked. It’s reminiscent of classic British bands like The Cure or Joy Division, but Telekinesis is actually an American solo artist. Here’s the bio, again from last.fm:

“Telekinesis is Michael Benjamin Lerner, an indie rocker based out of Seattle, Washington, United States who is currently signed to Merge Records. Lerner signed to Merge Records in early 2009, and shortly afterward released the eponymously named debut album Telekinesis! on April 7, 2009. Recorded in September of 2008, the album was produced, mixed, and engineered with the help of Chris Walla (guitarist for Death Cab for Cutie), recording one song per day on analog tape.”

Telekinesis released a second album “12 Desperate Straight Lines” last year, which features “I Cannot Love You” and other highlights like “Car Crash” and “Please Ask for Help” (you can definitely hear the Cure influence on this one.)

Click here for a free download of “Car Crash” courtesy of last.fm

So there you have it – I walked into Forever 21 looking for clothes, and came out with some new tunes. Whoever said good music was hard to find?