We regularly listen to online radio for a whole host of reasons. We do it when we’re at work (can’t put our music libraries on a company computer). We do it when we’re trying to discover new bands (you say Radiohead, we say Broken Social Scene). Suffice it to say, we do it a lot.
These sites work their magic by having you start with a musical artist you like. Then, they dish up tunes that are similar and time-tested favorites of other people who like the same things you do.
Pandora was a pioneer in this industry, but it’s recently been cracking down on service in order to monetize its product. Our friend used to listen to Pandora radio at work all day, every day—but now there are commercial breaks and a usage limit of 40 hours per month. She tasked us with a LearnVest mission: “Find me the very best site for listening to music online.”
So, we’ve arranged a head-to-head comparison of the frontrunners: Pandora, Last.fm, and Grooveshark.
Third Place: Pandora.
We first learned of Pandora years ago, and it revolutionized the way we listen to music. You can create multiple “stations” based around specific artists and songs.
Music Selection: Songs are generated by the “Music Genome Project,” which looks for certain common attributes between artists and songs in order to find similar music that you might like. (For example, if you listen to Beyonce, it will decide that you like female artists with strong vocals.) You can give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to any given song, and Pandora will try to figure out what went right (or wrong) and learn for next time.
Third Place: Pandora is classic. But, if you listen to the same station for a while, all the same music begins to repeat. Also, you can’t choose to listen to specific songs—although that song might cycle through your radio station, you need to start out by listening to music similar to that song instead. Those drawbacks, plus commercial interruptions and limited play time, make us itch for other options.
(Close) Second Place: Last.fm.
Last.fm has a leg up on Pandora because you can listen to individual songs at will. When you click on an artist’s radio station, you’re provided with similar music—much like with Pandora. You’re also provided with cheesy user-submitted images of celebrities that cycle through as a slide show. We recommend minimizing the screen and just listening, without subjecting yourself to the eyesore.
Music Selection: Unlike Pandora, which chooses related music with a top-down algorithm, Last.fm bases its recommendations on user suggestions and actual user listening patterns. So, every time you listen to something on the website and then choose something else, Last.fm takes note and tries to figure out what that means about who likes what.
Second Place: Our favorite feature of Last.fm is its ability to recommend upcoming concerts for the artists we’re listening to. It links us directly with ways to buy tickets and even put those concerts directly into our digital calendars. One drawback, however, is that the interface isn’t as user-friendly and easy to navigate as we’d like.
First Place: Grooveshark.
Like Last.fm, Grooveshark lets us find a specific song and play it at will. You don’t need to create an account in order to start listening to music, either. A simple search for an artist or a song pulls up loads of results, from which you can play whatever you want, drag it into a customized playlist, and then listen to your picks. If you want the site to suggest new artists to you, just hit the big button that says “Radio.”
Music Selection: Like Pandora, Grooveshark selects artists that it thinks you’ll like. We wish that it would tell us what it finds in common between songs, the same way that Pandora does. But we like its suggestions, anyway. Most importantly, we think that Grooveshark has the best overall user experience. The interface looks like a standard MP3 library, and it’s easy and seamless to navigate around.
So, next time you’re having a long day at the office, search for your favorite artist, sit back, and groove.