I’ve mentioned here a few times before that I love my LAUNCHcast station. I created a custom station there (after being driven from the previously shuttered radio.sonicnet, and Imagine Radio before that) in 2003, and over the course of the next five years rated a total of 25,094 artists, albums, and songs.

Imagine my chagrin when I was informed via email at the end of last year that CBS Radio is taking over LAUNCHcast, and that customized stations will be eliminated. After a quick trip through the stages of grief, I started in on the project of finding a new fix for my internet radio jones.

I had a few requirements:

  • I want to be able to construct a station based on a fixed list of artists, with the occasional movie or show soundtrack thrown in, e.g. Rocky Horror or West Side Story. I’d try to put it together using the list of artists I’d added to my LAUNCHcast station.
  • I want to be able to adjust that station at will.
  • I want to hear new artists, ones that aren’t on my list but that I have a chance of liking based on who is on the list.

Based on a bit of Googling, I identified five candidates: last.fm, Slacker, Pandora, mystrands, and Jango. Then I tried them out, one by one. I took a lot of notes during that process. On the off chance that those might be worthwhile to somebody, I post them here:

LAST.FM

This is a limited model — not exactly what I’m looking for. You can’t rate artists — only start a station based on one artist to find similarities. There’s a flavor that bases a playlist on things I’ve played on my machine with iTunes or WMP, but that’s too passive for my tastes.

SLACKER

This one has potential. It’s a more binary model than launchcast — you don’t rate an artist, but rather just request songs from that artist. However, it at least does allow by-artist customization. I ran into a hard limit early on — after rating 50 songs, it wanted me to upgrade. I may do it just to try — it’s only four bucks a month.

Oh, ah, there is a way to just add artists without requesting songs, though so far the playlist HEAVILY favors requested songs, even though I only requested a handful. Oh, hrm, when I looked at my settings, something called “Favorites” was set to maximum. Did I do that by accident?

Okay, yes, there is definitely a way to do this with a focus on artists rather than songs. It also does a nice job of introducing new artists into the mix — you can even configure how much it does this. However, the one drawback is that it remains binary — you can’t just say “I only want Madonna rarely” — she’s either on or off.

For some reason, I really like the “up next” feature.

Also, I can’t seem to find any soundtracks — i.e. Rocky Horror, Avenue Q, or Once More With Feeling. Amy Ray is missing. [She’s since been added.]

Okay, here’s a pisser: I’m in the midst of adding artists, and about 75 artists into the process, as the station is playing, an ad takes over the display. When I can finally return to the “edit station” display, all my changes are wiped out. Son of a BITCH!! Now I have to save every 5 minutes to be sure I won’t lose anything. Grrrrr…

After being spurred to investigate by The Beatles having played on Pandora, I created an experimental “Got Beatles?” station on Slacker and confirmed that yep, they’ve got ’em! Woo! For some reason, Launchcast would never let me play The Beatles on my customized station, though they did on their preprogrammed stations.

PANDORA

You can also build an artist-based station here, but again it’s only binary — can’t rate artists. Can also feature songs. Lots of similarities to slacker, actually — a different method of artist discovery, I think, and a bit less configurable. Slightly neater interface. Could find Rocky Horror, Avenue Q, and Amy Ray, which is a plus. And — WHOA — The Beatles! Man, that makes me really wonder if Slacker has them. That is a big plus over Launchcast.

Can’t find: Chappaquiddick Skyline, Jimmy Fallon, OMWF, Steve Martin, Sprites.

Entry seems to bog down a bit once lots of artists are in the list. Gets a bit crashy too. Ooh, but seems to have figured out to heal itself by displaying full list. Nifty!

Slacker updates the tab name with the song playing — Pandora doesn’t. That’s getting really annoying to me the more I listen to Pandora — it’s much more intrusive at work to have to bring up the browser window. Not a good combination with trying to introduce a lot of new music, either.

Can’t add artist to station from the currently playing song! Can only add the song. Similarly, can’t ban an artist, seemingly at all. Ah, okay, it appears that downthumbing two songs from that artist will do it, unless the artist is a seed or has a thumbed-up song. That seems sensible enough. Because of the distinction between songs and artists that is so encoded into both Pandora and Slacker, I’m wary of doing much song rating.

Slacker lets you upload your own image for a station, which is minor, but cool. [Though this feature has since been shuffled into oblivion. Slacker has changed a lot in the last 2 months!]

Pandora doesn’t seem to have on-air ads, which is a big plus. You can pay for slacker to eliminate these, which is really not such a big deal, I guess.

Pandora seems to try harder not to play the artists I’ve input, despite my having input about 200. That’s both a vice and a virtue, I suppose.

Whoa, just played two versions of “leaving on a jet plane” with only 3 songs separating them. That’s glitchy!

The four-song set thing can feel a little chunky at times.

MYSTRANDS

This one is closer to the Last.FM model — you download a desktop application and then play your own local songs. It listens in and recommends new music. In fact, based on the FAQ, it looks like it doesn’t even play you the music it recommends — you can listen to 30 second samples. This is so far from what I’m looking for that I didn’t bother to download it.

JANGO

Okay, this is another “list of artists” one. Once again, no apparent rating system for the artists — just binary. This is very frustrating — I think that’s the feature of Launchcast I’m going to miss the most.

From what I can tell, there’s not as much of an emphasis on favoriting songs, though there is a mechanism to do so when they play. Also, you can opt to rate songs by an artist from the “edit station” page, but it only offers them to you 10 at a time — there’s no search option. As far as I can determine, it shows you all the songs in its library for that artist, in batches. This reveals some surprisingly thin spots in the library — only 5 songs for Bob Seger? Slacker and Pandora may also have such gaps, but they don’t show it.

Interestingly, the *song* rating system does allow some levels. Well, two — “I like it” and “I love it”. Oh, and I guess there’s a third — “I don’t like it” — but that’s more of an “off” button.

The display gets buggy after you can’t find an artist you tried to add. There are some annoying javascripty problems in part of the interface — you have to be very careful with where your mouse pointer goes or else you’ll lose the current display.

Also freaky: I type “Bill Cosby”, it adds “Black Sheep.” I type “Chrissie Hynde”, it adds “Christini.”

Lets you upload a picture. There is more of an emphasis on the “social” part than in Slacker or Pandora, even a Facebooky feature that combs through your address book to find who among your friends is a Jango person. Sadly for Jango, I do not care about the social thing at all, just the radio.

Like Pandora, no update of the browser title bar (or the tab) to indicate the currently playing song.

Oh, now here’s an interesting feature — it lets you recall and *replay* songs that have played on your station, as well as play other songs related to the one currently playing. That is very cool, and a bit shocking to me based on how everybody else seems to be handling DMCA policies. Interestingly, I clicked on a Tori Amos song and it played the song, but displays that it’s now playing “Station 1 – Jane Siberry.” I guess the technicality they’re using to get around the ban on play-on-demand is that they’re ostensibly switching you to somebody else’s station.

Missing: Sinead Lohan, Rocky Horror, Jimmy Fallon, Lone Justice (!), Northern State (!!), Graham Parker (!!! — seriously, WTF?), Once More With Feeling, Avenue Q, Greg Brown, Great Northern, Marvelous 3, Sprites, Grace Slick.

There’s no way I can see to view a history of what’s played. That’s a big gap.

There’s a “music discovery control” which allows you to set how many new artists get played. There are only 3 settings, which amount to none, some, and a lot. I set it to “some”, but still haven’t heard a new artist yet. It’s been playing for 90 minutes and counting. Actually, a closer look reveals that the control is more about what’s popular and what isn’t, which may not be the same thing as “artist discovery.”

FAQ says there’s a way to ban artists from the “edit station” page, but I don’t see it, unless it’s to add the artist and then remove them, which would be a very silly way to implement that feature. Also, I see no way to “un-ban” an artist.

I cannot find anything to tell me what album a particular song comes from. Which is a bummer when I hear an unfamiliar new song from an artist I know well, or a live version, etc. The closest it comes is letting me trawl Amazon. Which, really: not that close.

There is a weird amount of artist repetition. I’ve heard Nina Simone 3 times in 2.5 hours, and Pasty Cline twice. I wonder if this is another knock-on effect of having an abbreviated library. I wouldn’t think so, though — I’ve added over 200 artists! I have restarted the station a couple of times while experimenting, but still, it’s strange those artists would get repeated anyway, given the wide selection from which this station can pick. Also, still no new artists at 2.5 hours and counting.

Overall, this seems like a cut-rate version of Slacker — poorer interface, fewer songs, fewer artists. The “song on demand” thing is mighty cool, though.


The winner: Slacker! Though in my opinion it’s still not as good as LAUNCHcast, I’ve managed to build a station I’m reasonably happy with. Pandora was a relatively close second.

My new Slacker station is called Giant Leaps, after the game I’m writing for Textfyre [Wow, that page says my game will be released in March! I will be quite shocked if that happens. Though it doesn’t say March of what year…] and the wide variety of music I’ve tried to include in it.

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