Tag Archives: MP3

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iPhone Apps – Pandora vs. Last.fm vs. iTunes

San Jose Taiko rocking the main stage Since the release of the iPhone 2.0 firmware and the App Store, I’ve been like a kid in a candy store. At some point I’ll get around to a list of recommended apps but for now I just want to compare two music listening / online radio applications: Last.fm and Pandora.

You do, of course, have many more options – the App Store Music category has about 30 apps listed, many of them designed to help you enjoy and discover new tunes. And you always have the built-in iPod functionality of the phone which syncs with iTunes on the desktop. But Last.fm and Pandora have been around for a while as very impressive web apps so those were the first two I decided to take a look at. They have very different approaches to recommending music with lots of data and cool algorithms.


Pandora is based on the Music Genome Project – basically, their system breaks down each song into a series of attributes. For example, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody has “demanding vocal performances, mild rhythmic syncopation, heavy use of vocal harmonies, a prominent rhythm piano part,” among other features. Give Pandora a song or musician and it will create a radio station of similar music. It’s really that simple.

As each song comes up you can give it a thumbs up or thumbs down and you can skip a few songs per station per hour. The iPhone interface displays the album art front and center with a button in the upper-right corner to show you why the system chose the song.

I’ve played with Pandora off and on for a while and my experience is that it does much better with stations created around one or two bands or songs than stations built on large lists of music you enjoy. Add 10 rock bands to your “Road trip with Steve 2008” station and if one of them has folk influences you’re bound to get some sleepy folk in there now and again. Give it just one band and it can get some amazing results – check out my Gorillaz station, for example.

The drawback to Pandora is that it only has very rudimentary data collection and social features. You can find other people listing to the same song on the website but user profiles are pretty sparse, and there’s no groups, message boards, etc. But if you just want to listen, and don’t want to bother with all that other stuff, Pandora provides a pretty great experience.


Last.fm builds radios stations for you and makes recommendations based on the listening data of thousands of other listeners, whether they’re using the Last.fm site, the mobile app, or a scrobbler plugin in their desktop MP3 player software. You can also listen to stations based around a single musician or band, but Last.fm gives you more options and better results the more you listen and participate in the social features of the site. For example, take a look at the listing for Bohemian Rhapsody – you can see top listeners, how users have tagged the song, similar songs, comments, message board posts, etc.

The user interface is actually quite similar to Pandora’s, with options to note that you love or hate a song, a skip button, album art, etc. You can see a bio of the band, similar artists, and upcoming events, which is cool in theory but I haven’t really used.

I’m a long time user of Last.fm from back in the Audioscrobbler days (check out the Geek Music group) and you definitely get more out of it the more you listen. You don’t really have to participate that much, just letting Last.fm know what you’re listing to improves recommendations and radio plays. My favorite thing about it is all the stats it collects. You can see which bands and songs you listen to most often and find out the most popular bands in Sri Lanka.

Compared to Pandora, though, the recommendations aren’t always as interesting… not bad, but I find myself pleasantly surprised more often while listening to Pandora. For comparison, listen to the Gorillaz similar artists radio station.

iPod + iTunes

You can, of course, skip online radio altogether and just use the built-in iPod functionality along with iTunes on the desktop.  There’s a lot to be said for going this route – the interface is nice and usable, the iPhone holds a decent amount of music, and iTunes collects of the same listening data that makes Last.fm so cool.  Also, it will work no matter how conjested the local network is and doesn’t drain the battery nearly as quickly.

But you miss out on all the social networking features and it’s a lot harder to discover new music.  So I think of it more as a back-up plan…  guaranteed access to some of my personal music library.

The Winner

Actually, there’s no need to pick one as the winner – they’re all available for use on your computer and your iPhone.

Have a favorite?  Share your experience in the comments section.

The Internet and the free trade of information after Napster

A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 15

This chapter’s debate is over the internet as a free trade of information (specifically via Napster).  Writing for the affirmative, Andrew Sullivan argues that file trading over the net is not stealing and might just make communism possible.  The lawyers for the recording industry, on the other had, argue that those who own the rights to the files traded need protection and deserve damages.

Sullivan is almost entirely optimistic about the ability of the net to act as a public space open to everyone.  Even the few sites which required payment are now becoming free, and people can copy the pay site’s content and send it outside anyway.  This, for him is a way to get around Marx’s dislike of the way capitalism values people only by monetary worth.  It also abolishes property in some ways, which Sullivan sees as helping to eliminate greed and profit motive in human interaction.  Soon musicians, journalists and others will remember their love for their professions and not mind going without a paycheck.

The recording industry lawyers, however, are not so cheery.  They point out that Napster facilitates music copying without paying copyright holders, that sales in Napster-saturated markets are down, and that Napster does so knowingly and at an enormous scale.  They argue that Napster was designed for the sole purpose of piracy and that it is their current business model as well.  Although Napster has yet to make any revenues, the lawyers argue they have gotten a financial benefit through piracy via venture capital, stock price and audience acquisition.

Sullivan, I think, has missed the point almost entirely.  I could go on for pages (and will in my paper), but basically his notion that the web is divorced from money is ridiculous.  Newspapers don’t charge because they make money off advertising-so they, along with the rest of the net, try to track you, market to you, sell data about you, etc., and if they don’t they fold.  Web traffic is going increasingly to those with money and power.  Also, so long as food and rent cost money, no writer or musician will forgo paychecks.  Sullivan seems to think you can live off MP3s alone.  My paper is about the internet’s function as a public space, it has more limitations than he recognizes-for example, not everyone can afford a computer or a net connection, which leaves a lot of people out of the public debate.

The Napster lawyers are also full of crap in a lot of ways.  These two essays really are at opposite ends of the spectrum-Sullivan is a naïve Marxist and the lawyers are cunning corporate-capitalists.  Note that in their public statements and in much of the press coverage, the recording industry represented this as a case of taking money from Metallica or the Rolling Stones or whoever, but in the brief copyright ownership is the key concept.  Most musicians get pennies for each CD sold, and some get nothing-with giant corporations, who control the entire distribution network, fixing prices at $17 each.  Napster, in fact, does little to nothing to hurt the average musician, but it’s possible (the lawyers’ proof is not rock solid) it hurts the corporate music oligarchy.  So it hurts non-human entities which create nothing but take all the wealth by dominating and controlling the market-excuse me if I’m not crying.  When the lawyers mention that Napster intends to make CD stores and the RIAA obsolete, it becomes pretty clear-since when has it been illegal to make an outdated system obsolete through technological innovation?

If the court is really interested in serving the public interest, it would pursue antitrust action against the RIAA and rewrite the copyright laws.  It is becoming harder and harder for a person who actually creates something, whether it’s an album, photograph, novel or article, to retain ownership to it.  Corporations, via concentration of ownership and agreements, are now demanding perpetual copyright ownership even from freelance workers who are traditionally protected.  Copyright law was intended to encourage creative and inventive people by giving them ownership of their work, but that rarely happens anymore.