East End Tech: Technical, Musical Musings

In putting together my list of topics for 2013, I realized that while I’ve written many columns about cool hardware devices, I haven’t spent nearly as much time writing about the software and services available on these gadgets. And I’ve never written about music.

Life is sweeter in stereo. Let’s kick off 2013 with some tips and random thoughts about the leading music-streaming services.

What’s Cool Today

There are multiple popular music-streaming services, but in my view this is basically a two-horse race between Pandora and Spotify. (Note: I am not including Sirius XM, because it’s a paid subscription service.)

At their core, Pandora and Spotify have many similarities. Both offer large libraries of free music, supported by ads and streamed to your computer, TV or mobile device. The primary difference lies in how these services help you—the listener—discover and experience the songs.

Pandora is all about genres and artists. You simply type in a band you like, or the genre of music you want to listen to. Then you sit back and let the algorithm feed you related songs that match the musical qualities of your chosen music. The results can be hit and miss; for every great Rolling Stones track, you occasionally wind up with a Carpenters ballad that seemingly has no relation to what you originally wanted to hear. Pandora actually requires a fair amount of listener participation; the more you “like” and “dislike” songs, the algorithm presumably learns your preferences and delivers an even better list of songs.

Spotify is similar but different. You can search for music by artist or genre, but the core behavior here is social networking—discovering songs through charts and playlists that are published by your friends and celebrity tastemakers. I find it interesting to learn what my pals and colleagues are listening to these days, and I enjoy sharing my music with others. This can lead to a more human experience as well as some really strange selections, depending on your Facebook friends.

The downside? Spotify’s user interface is clunky and requires lots of time to navigate. Pandora lets you start playing music on a single click of a button, which is simply a better starting point.

Both services also feature banners and audio ads, which are short and run fairly frequently. You can subscribe to their premium services to eliminate ads, but frankly the ads don’t really bother me. Not worth the money.

What’s Coming Tomorrow

Both Pandora and Spotify are great, free music platforms. But in their own way they fail to capture what I think is the secret sauce to great music: the emotional connections we all have to songs.

Let me put it another way:

Pandora is too sterile, and Spotify is too social. I don’t want a sterile algorithm to pick my playlists, and I don’t have time to scroll through all my friends’ songs to curate the best ones.

What I really want is a music-streaming service that generates playlists based on my present mood or activity—or even one that transports me to another date, time and place. I want to type in “dinner party” or “morning workout” or 1978 bar mitzvah,” answer a few questions about my musical tastes, and magically retrieve songs that are appropriate for this moment. Seems simple enough.

The good news is, this kind of listening experience might be coming in the not-so-distant future. One example is a service called “Daisy,” slated to launch sometime this year. Daisy is a collaboration between the folks who built the Beats By Dre headphone empire and Trent Reznor, the industrial music composer.

Details are sketchy, but Reznor is promising a more curated experience than what you presently find on Pandora or Spotify.

Let’s hope so, and tune in later this summer for more details.

Share your cool winter playlists in the comments below!

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