How to Find Great New Music, with Spotify

I keep hearing my fellow Mac enthusiasts raving about the “For You” tab in Apple Music, and how music discovery is so much better in Apple Music than in Spotify.  I get it, we’re Apple fans, we are supposed to be excited about new Apple hardware and apps.  And I suppose if someone forced me to speak kindly of the mishmash that is iTunes and is bolted on new addition, music discovery would be the second thing I’d mention (the first thing being the very real benefit of combining, on both the desktop and your mobile device, your streaming music and your owned music).  But I have to say, I hear a lot of people trying very hard to convince themselves that they like Apple Music.

Let’s take a look at music discovery within Apple Music and Spotify.  For this experiment, we’ll focus on discovering music I don’t know about already, as opposed to other similar music already in my library.

First, let’s take a look at the “For You” tab.  Here’s the top screen of mine.

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There are only two records in there I haven’t heard (Hound Dog Taylor and Bob Mould), and no artists I’ve never heard of.  I like The Band, but bombastic and heartfelt classic rock ballads is most definitely not one of my genres.

Now, Spotify.

There are three primary ways to discover new music in Spotify.  First, the “Discover” tab under Browse.  Here’s the top of mine.

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I’ve heard of all those artists too, but I’ve only heard two of the records listed (Otis Gibbs and The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash).  All of these are clearly within my preferred genres.

Second, there’s the new “Discover Weekly” playlist.  Here’s my current one.

 

Of those 30 songs, I’d previously heard only four of them.  That’s pretty amazing, and while I don’t love all of them, there’s a lot of good stuff to be mined from that list.  It’s closer to what I like than any “human curated” playlist I’ve come across while trying to work my way through the corn maze that is Apple Music.

Finally, there’s the most fun and rewarding way to find new music on Spotify. Surfing around the “Related Artists” links.

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I have spent hours surfing around looking for new music this way.  Most of the stuff in Rancho Radio, my “Kent curated” public playlist, was found that way.

Competition is great for consumers.  Apple Music will make Spotify better, and there’s room for both.  But don’t tell me it’s hard to find new music on Spotify, because I have a thousand or so tracks in my various playlists that say otherwise.

Maybe Apple Music will become the best music service out there.  But let’s be honest.  The announcement at WWDC was a disjointed disaster, and the app is confusing and hard to use.  I’m hoping it will get better (though I’ve been hoping iTunes will get better for years), but there’s a lot of work to be done.

In the meantime, I’m sticking with Spotify.

Radio Test: Spotify vs Apple Music

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For the past few days, I’ve been experimenting with Apple Music.  While I am naturally skeptical of anything that involves iTunes, Apple has already proven, with the sale of music downloads, that it can revolutionize an industry.  Can it do for streaming and radio what it did for music sales?  That’s hard to say, largely because there are already a lot of streaming and radio options out there, many of which provide elegant solutions, and all of which have a head start on Apple in the streaming space.

I’m putting together a podcast about my views on Apple music overall, but I thought I’d take a look at one specific part of the music experience: radio.

First, if all you want is streaming, personalized radio, stop reading right now and stick with Pandora.  Pandora is, by far, the most effective and rewarding solution for personalizing radio stations.  Anyone who tells you different is confused or lying.  I have very specific music tastes (alt. country, meaning countryish songs played by rock musicians; as distinguished from Americana, which I view largely as old cats trying to be philosophical or clever), and I know virtually nothing about the artists that play on mainstream radio in 2015.  Nevertheless, Pandora does an excellent job of understanding what I like and providing me with music I’ve never heard that suits my tastes.

But if radio is merely a part of your overall music experience, and you also want the ability to listen to records on demand and to build custom playlists, etc., many of the broader music applications provide radio as a feature.  Let’s compare Spotify, my current primary music service, and Apple Music to see how they do with creating a radio station tailored to my musical preferences.

Again, because I don’t listen to much new, mainstream music, it’s important to pick a good starting point.  Both Spotify and Apple Music let you start a radio station based on a specific song.  Because it’s one of the best songs I’ve heard recently, and because I think the title makes a good name for a radio station, I decided to start with” Blue Light” by Jimbo Mathus.  Let’s see how each service does creating a radio station from that song.

For this experiment, I’ll start a radio station with “Blue Light,” play 15 subsequent songs, thumb the good and bad songs up and down and see what happens.  In the list below, Great means I thumbed up the song, Good means I didn’t thumb it up, but like it, and Bad means it got a thumbs down.  The number is my rating from 1-5 on how well I think it fits the vibe established by the initial song and any prior thumbs up or down.

Spotify

1. The Black Lillies – The Soul of Man (Good; 4)
2. Patterson Hood – 12:01 (Good; 3)
3. Otis Gibbs – When I was Young (Great; 5)
4. Slaid Cleaves – Horseshoe Lounge (Great; 5)
5. Catherine – The Black Lillies (Good; 3)*
6. Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel – Justin Townes Earle (Great; 5)
7. Tillamook County Jail – Todd Snider (Good; 3)
8. Moving On – Lauderdale (Great; 5)
9. Come Back Little Star – Patterson Hood (Good; 4)*
10. Gulf Road – James McMurtry (Good; 4)**
11. By the Wayside – The Black Lillies (Good; 3)***
12. Where Only the Graves Are Real – Otis Gibbs (Good; 5)*
13. Smile When You Call Me That – Jakob Dylan (Bad; 2)
14. Cemetery Road – Fred Eaglesmith (Great; 5)
15. Black T Shirt – Slaid Cleaves (Good; 5)*

* I didn’t thumb this down because I didn’t want to confuse the algorithm, but I consider it a fail if a station plays too much of the same artist.
** This excellent song would warrant a thumbs up, but I’m not generally a McMurtry fan, so I didn’t thumb it up because I thought that would result in more of his songs than I prefer.
*** 3rd song out of 11 gets a thumbs down on principle.

Summary: Spotify did a decent, but not fantastic, job with a pretty obscure song as a starting point.  Clearly, it has a harder time with a more narrow genre, which is a little surprising since there are a ton of songs on Spotify that fit within my target, including those on Rancho Radio, my hand-curated playlist.

Apple Music

1. Lonely Days – Deadstring Brothers (Great; 5)#
2. I Don’t Wear No Sunglasses – Watermelon Slim (Bad; 2)
3. Knockdown South – Jimbo Mathus (Bad; 2)
4. Ballad of Henry & Jimmy – Paul Burch (Good; 4)
5. Fightin’ – Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcolm (Bad; 1)
6. Goin’ Down South – North Mississippi Allstars (Bad; 2)##
7. Asked My Captain – Jimbo Mathus (Good; 3)###
8. Only Time Will Tell – The Better Angels of Our Nature (Great; 5)
9. John Henry – Furry Lewis (Bad; 2)####
10. Loose Diamonds – Jimbo Mathus (Good; 5)#####
11. Shotgun – Ashes and Angels (Good; 4)
12. Wild Bill Jones – Luther Dickinson (Great; 5)
13. In My Time of Dying – Alvin Youngblood Hart (Bad; 2)##
14. Self – Jimbo Mathus (Good; 5) #####
15. Goin’ Down South – Jake Leg Stompers (Bad; 2)

I have to add a 16, because it’s a great cover of a great song…

16. They Don’t Know – Lydia Loveless (Great; 5)

# Great, great start.
## This is an awesome jam of a song, but nothing like Blue Light.
### I didn’t thumb this down because I didn’t want to confuse the algorithm, but I consider it a fail if a station plays too much of the same artist.
#### Very clearly, Apple Music incorrectly made this a blues station.
##### 3rd or more song out of 11 gets a thumbs down on principle.

Summary:  Apple Music also struggles mightily with an obscure starting point.  I don’t like the excessive artist repetition, or the fact that it somehow decided I was making a blues station.  On the other hand, Only Time Will Tell  by The Better Angels of Our Nature was the best new song I heard on either station.

Conclusion:  As noted above, if you want radio, use Pandora.  As a part of a larger music service, neither Spotify nor Apple Music covered itself in radio glory, but Spotify is currently the better of the two.

Has Spotify Achieved Non-Geek Traction?

This post has a soundtrack.  If you don’t have Spotify, for the love of Duane Allman and Jerry Garcia, go sign up.  If you can’t get an invite, and I know or know of you, leave a request in the Comments and I’ll try to round one up for you.

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The current Jukebox DeLuxe playlist.

It’s no secret that I really dig Spotify.  It has almost completely replaced all of my other music applications and services.  Including my huge local music collection on my network server.  If I want something Spotify doesn’t have, I add that file to my Spotify library.  Not the other way around.

When Spotify was released, I was certain it was going to roll over the social web like a tidal wave.  I’m not sure that happened.

My Facebook Friends list is a good mix of three kinds of folks.  My high school friends, who are mostly very non-geeky.  My tech writer friends, who are extremely geeky.  And fellow musicians, who are all ranges of geeky, but very interested in music.

Of my 247 Facebook Friends, exactly 14 have signed up for Spotify and enabled the social sharing features.

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Of those 14, four had early access to Spotify. Another one of them is my daughter, who begged for an invitation after hearing me rave about it endlessly.  That leaves 9 people who signed up on their own after Spotify officially launched in the U.S.  That’s not many.  Heck, I’ve sent out 5-6 invitations and only my daughter has signed up.

All of this makes me wonder.

As someone who has tried countless music services, I can tell you unequivocally that Spotify is the best music service I have ever used.  I love it, and am happy to pay for a premium account.

But the money is in the non-geek crowd.  Because there are a lot more of them.  And based on my admittedly non-scientific sample, Spotify doesn’t have the non-geek reach I thought it would.

I hope I’m wrong.  Because Spotify rocks.

Spotify Launches Artist Radio in the U.S.!

When Spotify launched in the United States., the artist radio feature that is available in Europe was absent.  Even without that feature, Spotify is a great service, and well worth the premium subscription price of $10 a month.

Still, people being people, many complained and begged Spotify to enable some sort of radio feature.

Much to my happy surprise, when I fired up Spotify tonight, the Artist Radio feature was there.  No announcement, no bells and whistles.  It was just there.

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This makes an already excellent service even better.  Hopefully over time, Spotify will add more ways to fine tune your radio.

Here’s the bottom line.  If you like music, even a little bit, there is no rationale basis for not signing up for Spotify as fast as you can.  It’s damn near perfect already, and it just gets better and better.

Spotify Wins the Race to My Desktop (and Heart)

Everybody and their dog is talking about Spotify today, which is understandable since it, finally, finally launched in the United States this morning.  I’ll keep this (sort of) short.

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I have been holding a secret sweepstakes in my head about which much ballyhooed app would find its way to my desktop first.  Google+, which is the talk of the internets, and still, amazingly,  unavailable to Google Apps users, or Spotify, the Holy Grail of music apps.  Spotify won.

I’ve been using Spotify for a few months, and can say unequivocally that it is the best music app I have ever used.  By far.  Now that it’s officially available and I don’t have to worry about some record-label madness derailing my joy, here’s what I know.

One, Spotify is going to completely change the music game, for the better.  I simply cannot believe there is a true music fan that won’t find $5 or $10 a month a screaming bargain for what Spotify offers.  Spotify has already replaced Windows Media Player and the bloated train wreck  that is iTunes as my default music player.

Two, I have cancelled my Slacker Radio account, and may very well cancel my Pandora account.  The 6-skip an hour limitation on Pandora (even the paid accounts) is simply a deal-stopper for me.  The only thing that could ensure that I keep Pandora will be if it gets to my car quickly and cheaply.  I want to dump Sirius XM (and the annoyance that is Mojo Nixon) much more than I want to dump Pandora, so the dashboard is open for Pandora to secure its place in my paid apps lineup.

Three, unlike 99% of the apps out there, Spotify does social right.  The sharing features really add something to the experience.  As soon as I add some alt. country, country rock, classic rock and blues loving friends to my Spotify circle, music discovery will be a significant, and fun, part of the experience.

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Four, while there are tons and tons of songs in Spotify’s library, there are some holes around the edges.  Particularly as it relates to less mainstream and older music.  One of the first things I did was to try to add all the alt. country songs I thumbed up via Pandora to a Spotify playlist.  I was a little surprised at how many weren’t available.  I hope the library grows like I know the user base will.

Five, as amazing as this may sound, I have not added my huge local music library to Spotify.  I have 26,000 or so (legal, non-shared) songs on my music server.  The thing is, there are probably 15,000 or so of them that I never want to hear again.  I’m afraid things would get too cluttered if I tossed my entire library into my Spotify window.  Rather, I am going to use local files to fill in some of the gaps, and use Spotify’s library as my main one.  This may change, but that’s the current plan.

I’m really stoked about Spotify.  Now, if Google will stop screwing over Google Apps users, my desktop (and heart) will be full of joy.

A Comprehensive Spotify Walk-Through for Curious, Excluded & Impatient Americans

Now that I have sufficiently expressed my irritation with the tendency of Spotify and those who obsess on it to tell us every day that tomorrow will be the day Spotify officially launches in the U.S., maybe I should take a look at it and see what’s what.

Here’s what will happen if and when we get access to Spotify here in the new world.

After registering and downloading the Spotify music player app, you land at the Library page.

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When you click the “Start using Library” button, Spotify quickly scans your computer,  imports your local music, and adds it to the “Local files” folder.  I didn’t know this was going to happen, but OK.

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There’s a “What’s new” link at the top of the navigation column, that clearly doesn’t yet know my musical tastes, though it knows my taste in bathing suits.

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Via the navigation column, you can create Playlists, and view and download to your computer the songs you purchase via Spotify.

Let’s search for some music.  How about The Avett Brothers.

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Tons of available songs.  Local files are marked with a little icon on the right hand side.

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I decided to listen to one of my favorites, A Gift for Melody Anne.  Plays immediately, via my Local files library.  That’s pretty nifty, to automatically use the local file when available.  The integration between local files and streamed content looks pretty seamless.

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Right click on the song in the main window and you can add it to your play queue and/or star it as a favorite.

Now let’s try one that’s not local.  When I Drink.  No problem.

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Let’s see if I can share this via the little Facebook link.  That will surprise some people.  Worked like a charm.

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Let’s queue up some music, with some stuff that I know isn’t local.  Easy as pie.  There are some ads in the stream, but that’s to be expected with the free version.

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I really like that acoustic version of Bermuda Highway by My Morning Jacket.  I think I’ll try to buy the record.  I clicked on the name of the record and landed on the album page, with a handy “Buy Album” button.

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The 5 song EP was $2.85 (converted).  No Paypal option, though.  Had there been, I would have bought it on the spot (pun intended).

Being a faithful music fan, I went to Amazon and bought the record.  For $8.32!  It wasn’t available in MP3 format.

So, the questions.

Would I use it?  Probably so.  I’d at least give it a try.

Would I pay $8.00 a month (this is the UK converted price; if it ever comes to the U.S., it might cost more) for an Unlimited subscription, to lose the 20 hours a month time limit and the ads?  Probably, but that would mean that I would pay for three premium music services.  Spotify, Pandora and Slacker Radio.  The on-demand nature of Spotify’s service would be a distinguishing factor that could very lead me to subscribe, assuming the cost was reasonably equivalent.

How about  $16.00 a month (this is the UK converted price; if it ever comes to the U.S., it might cost more) for all of that plus better sound quality, offline mode and full mobile access?  I’m not sure.  Maybe.  It would depend on the iPhone app.

My hunch is that it would be hard for Spotify to supplant Pandora and Slacker as my mobile music source.  But you never know.

The biggest problem I see right now is the jump from the $8.00 plan to the $16.00 plan (and again, it may be more in the U.S.) that is required to get offline (cached) access and mobile access.  Slacker Radio gives you all of that right now for  $48.00 a year.

But in spite of that, I can’t deny that I find Spotify pretty appealing.  Even if it’s only a mirage on the horizon at this point.

Heck, if I can learn to like Facebook, I guess anything is possible.

It is Mathematically Impossible for Me to Care Less Whether Spotify Launches in the U.S.

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I just want everyone to stop talking about it.

Nothing amuses me any more than when someone who knows someone who has a friend who knows people at Spotify cuts a fart and the entire world goes nuts claiming that the glorious sound of flatulence  means, for the thousandth time, that Spotify is just about to launch in the United States.

Look, I’m a tech blogger, a music blogger, a songwriter and musician and a huge music fan.  So demographically speaking, no one should be more excited about Spotify than me.  But, after all the half-starts, bluster and overreactions, I could not possibly express how little I care if Spotify launches or doesn’t or if the whole thing is some long con by the Onion.

I just don’t care.  Either launch or don’t.  But please, please, please…stop talking about launching.  Really.

But today, there was more.  A possibly off-hand comment by an anonymous music industry “executive” (what does that even mean in 2011) causes the entire internet to grab its collective headphone and proclaim that this, finally, may be the day the music is reincarnated.  It was a virtual conga line, over nothing more than the latest unattributed hint that maybe one day Spotify will actually be available on this side of the Atlantic.

For what it’s worth (and I hate to talk about Spotify in the US as if it’s anything more than  vaperware), I don’t think it’s too late.  Pandora’s six skips an hour limit is killing me (mainly because on connected DVD players, at least, it seems to be per hour of playing time, as opposed to an hour of real time).  I love Slacker’s caching and unlimited skips, but the mix I get with Slacker isn’t as good as on Pandora.  I’d rather yank out my ear drums with rusty pliers than use Rhapsody, and I don’t know what MOG is.

Spotify could be huge.  If it ever happens.

Until then, can we all shut up about it?