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

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January Blues

Let’s face it, January is a pretty miserable month. Once the revelry of ringing in the New Year is over, it’s back to work/school for most of us, and the succession of cold grey days and long winter nights can be depressing. The concept of “January Blues” is widely accepted and for many people, an inevitable part of life.

But here’s an idea: why not use music to beat the blues? The mental health charity SANE has teamed up with misery-loving club Feeling Gloomy, in an attempt to cheer everyone up during “Blue Mood Month.” They’ve asked a whole host of celebrities to compile Spotify playlists of their favourite sad songs – the idea presumably being that a little bit of wallowing in someone else’s misfortunes can make you feel better about your own. Read all about it here.

I think this is a great idea; as well as raising awareness of mental health issues, it also provides an interesting and sometimes surprising insight into the musical tastes of the celebs. Plus, it’s a chance to discover music you might not normally listen to. I wouldn’t recommend listening to all of them in one sitting (there comes a point when you have to stop wallowing), but here’s just a few that caught my eye:

Dan Stevens

The Downton Abbey star’s list includes wistful folky melodies from Nick Drake (Clothes of Sand) soulful crooning from Nina Simone (I Loves You Porgy), bitter rage from Nirvana (Where Did You Sleep Last Night) and a classic from the kings of gloom, Radiohead (No Surprises).

Listen if you like: The Flaming Lips, Nick Drake, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, Black Crowes, Allo Darlin’

Stephen Fry

Along with smooth soul tunes from Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, Fry’s compilation includes Elton¬† John’s aptly titled Sad Songs Say So Much and Evanescence’s piano-rock ballad My Immortal. And no miserable playlist would be complete without The Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now…

Listen if you like: Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Mozart, Elton John, George Michael

Beverley Knight

Ms Knight selects an interesting mix of classic soul/Motown and alternative rock tunes. Her list features Marvin Gaye’s Heard it Through the Grapevine, U2’s With or Without You, Radiohead’s High and Dry, and ends on a defiantly positive note with Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. She also includes her own hit, Shoulda Woulda Coulda – bit of shameless self-promotion there, but it does fit the theme pretty well.

Listen if you like: Beverley Knight, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, Prince, U2

Jamie MacColl

The Bombay Bicycle Club guitarist’s list is ripe with indie/alternative offerings from Broken Social Scene (Stars and Sons), LCD Soundsystem (Someone Great) and Bon Iver (Come Talk to Me)

Listen if you like: Broken Social Scene, Tom Waits, LCD Soundsystem, Cat Power, Bon Iver, Gilian Welch

Jo Brand

The psychiatric nurse turned award-winning comedian kicks off her playlist with Morrissey’s Every Day is Like Sunday, and follows it up with tearful tunes from Paolo Nutini (Last Request), Queen (Somebody to Love) and Amy Winehouse (Back to Black)

Listen if you like: Paolo Nutini, Amy Winehouse, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Happy listening! Or, you know…whatever.