My iPod contains 10 vastly different playlists, but they’re all beginning to sound stale.
Name a tune from any playlist and I can tell you which artist follows. Even without thinking, I know that Mozart’s Adagio from his Piano Concerto No. 12 follows Morcheeba’s “The Sea.”
As a music critic, I like to explore the horizons. To do so I visit online playlist generators or Internet radio stations. They go by names like Pandora, GrokMusic or Slacker. And they are just the ticket for shaking up my listening routine.
Several have been around for years, yet many people in my age group have yet to discover them. Only a quarter of those ages 36 to 50 now listen to an Internet radio station, according to a recent Pew study. Even among adults ages 18 to 35, a group considered more Internet-savvy, a little more than half were not listening to free streaming samples of songs online.
“Most people, as they get older, lose touch with music,” said Tim Westergren, chief executive of Pandora, the most popular music streaming site. “They’re stuck with the music of their youth and have a very hard time finding new stuff.”
Pandora launched in 2000 as a site where audiences could find independent musicians. Even today, 70 percent of the 85,000 artists in Pandora’s collection are independent artists, Westergren said.
Pandora and a growing list of competitors have become a powerful tool, one that feels like a virtual radio station and uses musical experts to suggest tracks from an archive of thousands of recordings.
Some, like last.fm, go a step further by incorporating a social-networking element where you can meet people with similar tastes, no matter how obscure the music. And most work with smart phones such as the iPhone, Blackberry and Android phones.
Here are five free, user-friendly sites that offer an experience very much like falling through a musical rabbit hole:
• Scoop: The runner-up to Pandora in popularity, this site claims more than 30 million users in roughly 200 countries. What sets last.fm’s apart from Pandora is its music suggestion software called “Audioscrobbler” (requires download), which automatically adds the tracks you play to your profile. Allows you to meet other members and groups with similar tastes through social- networking forums like one called “I Still Buy CDs,” a forum that boasts 54,212 members.
• How it works: Type in the name of an artist and get a screen of suggested tracks, artist information and videos. As you use the site, it builds a detailed profile of your tastes from Internet radio stations, computer or portable music device.
• Cost: Free
• Pros: Simple and elegant screen layout; great musical social networking site; downloadable to all smart phones
• Cons: Requires download of last.fm software; your listening choice information is shared with record labels
• Scoop: The leader in the music-suggestion realm, with more than 30 million users, Pandora uses an algorithm called the “Music Genome Project” to suggest artists and new songs.
• How it works: You select artists or songs you like, which triggers an online playlist. Using that information, Pandora launches a streaming station to explore that part of the musical spectrum. The Music Genome Project captures the complex musical DNA of the songs and uses a team of 50 musicians to plumb it, then kicks out suggestions. The result? You get a Green Day suggestion with your Nirvana.
• Cost: Free
• Pros: Well-stocked library; available as an app on smart phones
• Cons: Sometimes makes quizzical suggestions; doesn’t allow skipping back to tracks; large banner ads.
• Scoop: Don’t let the name turn you off. This clean application allows you to listen to more than 100 stations for free or upgrade to a subscription. You can try stations programmed by music experts or create a custom station.
• How it works: Click your favorite music category on the home screen, and you are taken to a screen of subgenres. For example, if you like jazz, it offers up eight subgenres, from “smooth” to “acid jazz” that are easy to navigate. The site also offers up “Top Hit” or “Top Station” lists and album reviews.
• Cost: Free. Offers upgrade to its “Plus” plan at $4.99 a month or $47.88 a year. The upgrade gives you no ads, unlimited song skips and complete lyrics. I thought the free option was well worth dealing with an ad every half hour.
• Pros: Good sound quality and nice graphic look; little or no buffering; works as an app on most smart phones
• Cons: Free option allows only six songs skips per created station and periodic ads.
• Scoop: Do you have a hankering to listen to live music being played in, say, Ibiza, Spain? Or in a hip club in Manhattan? If so, then this site is for you. Awdio.com is the first platform solely devoted to broadcasting live music and the first to offer a music player that broadcasts multiple channels of live music to any Web browser.
• How it works: From the home page, navigate to the Events Page box and a calendar of what is being performed, where and when. Includes schedules for upcoming acts from more than 100 venues worldwide, from rap to house to classical music. A great tool for listening to music festivals with their multiple stages.
• Cost: Free
• Pros: High-quality streaming of live music
• Cons: Limited to live events; many festivals’ broadcasts are obscure; does not suggest music; no smart phone app.
• Scoop: This site wins my vote for the best name and the most graphically simple music-suggestion page. Use a music map on the home page to links for similar artists, or fill in the music- suggestion box that allows you to reach across dissimilar genres for new music. It also offers music articles, bios and links to radio station webstreams.
• How it works: Upon entering, you are prompted to type in the name of an artist. Typing in U2, for example, creates a bubble map that offers artists such as Travis, the Killers and Queen.
A music-suggestion box below that asks for three artists. Putting in U2, Beyoncé and Beethoven brought up a dozen suggestions, including Rihanna, Mozart and the Pussycat Dolls. You can indicate whether you “Like it,” “Don’t like it” or “Don’t know it.” This input feeds the Grok Music discovery engine for future use.
• Cost: Free
• Pros: Easy to use, fun for play, the site suggests music far afield from home entry.
• Cons: The music- suggestion process can be clunky, and there’s no smart phone app.