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My personal favorite music recommendation website Last.fm released some news back in April that they would be ending their subscription radio service — the biggest downsizing in the scope of the website that I’ve witnessed since I’ve been a member. As a result, I’ve begrudgingly switched most of my music listening over to Spotify. It has been about two months since I made the switch, and today I’m going to review what I like and don’t like about the service.

Sound Quality

In the grand scheme of audiophiles, I am very entry-level. I know the basics: to hear music at its best, you need a good source, and you need a good sound system. There’s a lot of discussion about what constitutes high quality source material. Some people believe it can only be achieved with vinyl records, which, while being an especially popular sentiment lately, is complete nonsense. Another debate occurs between people who think completely lossless compression (such as FLAC) provides advantages to lossy audio (such as mp3). A lot of research has gone into this debate, and it generally turns out that once the bitrate of an mp3 reaches 320kbps CBR, listeners are unable to discern a difference between mp3 and FLAC.

Therefore, I generally look for audio that meets that 320kbps threshold (although I settle for worse daily on youtube). This keeps file sizes and data plan usage at a minimum (FLAC files are gigantic) while maximizing the sound quality potential of my source¹.

With regards to the sound system, I don’t find there to be a whole lot of debate on what to do: you have to spend a lot of money. At the moment, I have some nice studio monitors wired directly to my computer’s onboard audio. It is possible to do much better than that, but I’m satisfied with the sound quality I’m getting now compared to when I was using basic computer speakers, and I’m not interested in spending any more money on my setup at the moment.

With that knowledge, in choosing an online streaming service, I was looking for one that would provide the best source signal. That immediately narrowed it down to Spotify, Beats, Google Play, and Sony. All four services have similarly sized libraries, the same prices for subscription (because I ain’t about that free stuff), and the same features, so I’d have to say it really came down to marketing.

Beats is trying to push its novel recommendation engine, in which it tries to ascertain your mood and play music that meshes with it. While I am interested in finding new music, I rarely take recommendations as such, so that unique aspect of Beats did not interest me, and indeed looked as though it would get in the way. As for Google and Sony, even now I’m struggling to figure out exactly how their services work. With Google, it looks a lot like iTunes, and it is not clear whether or not I’d have to pay to listen to a specific album, and if my subscription fee is only directed toward radio/playlist-based listening. Sony’s option sounds like it has potential, but it is rarely discussed, and I did not see anyone making a compelling case for it when I was doing my research. Spotify proved  to be the most popular and well-reviewed service of the four.

Music Selection

As stated before, all the big media streaming companies have large selections, but it is hard to tell up front where the gaps in those selections will be. Now that I’ve been on Spotify for a while, I can say that I do encounter these gaps pretty regularly, although I doubt the problem is any better on the other services. In fact, I’m not surprised at all that some of the artists I’m looking for don’t have their music on Spotify — a lot of them are new, or obscure, and I have been able to locate their music on Bandcamp instead. However, I was quite surprised to find that even well-known artists like Joanna Newsom are not on Spotify or seemingly anywhere else. It is the result of record company politics, most likely, and it is unfortunate because my listening habits are now heavily biased toward artists I can find with my Spotify account.

Another interesting quirk with Spotify is that they have done an absolutely horrid job of tagging their library. I’ve seen mistakes ranging from incomplete (cropped) song names to referring to The Microphones as “Microphones.” Thankfully, last.fm has an autocorrect feature to fix issues like this, or else I would have been very annoyed.

Despite these issues, I have really enjoyed having this gigantic library at my disposal for only $10 a month. Even in cases where I can’t find the artist I want, there is always another similar artist that is on Spotify, and I feel that I have definitely gotten my money’s worth out of the service. It is a small price to pay for avoiding the temptation of youtube videos or piracy.

Radio

Streaming radio was what I used Last.fm for, and I use it a lot on Spotify as well. However, I have been disappointed to find that Spotify’s radio system is very hit-or-miss. I have been trying to place my finger on what the problem is, and I suspect it has to do with Last.fm’s library vs. Spotify’s. When I listened to Last.fm’s radio, it would usually start to trend into more obscure territory, because a lot of Last.fm’s library was composed of lesser known artists. I frequently discovered new artists this way.

Spotify seems to work the other way, depending on who your starting seed is. When I tried some emo bands, it would immediately trend toward the “milk chocolate” pop-punk side of the genre. I can understand how the engine came up with that path, but it isn’t what I was looking for, and Last.fm did not behave that way. Spotify seems more often than not to make boring selections, whereas Last.fm was quite adventurous.

My solution to this problem was to pick very starting seeds that are more obscure than the target band I want to listen to. When Spotify starts to “pleb it up,” if you will, then it starts playing more of what I’d like to hear. It might sound odd to pick some random unknown emo band as my radio seed when I really want to hear bands like Mineral, but that’s how I have to do it.

Another oddity is that while Last.fm would come back to your original seed once per hour, Spotify seems to come back to it several times per hour (at least twice, but I suspect more often). That isn’t what I’m looking for in a radio service. I use the radio as an exploratory tool. If I really wanted to hear the same artist over and over, I would go and listen to their albums.

Last.fm has some kind of Spotify integration/partnership, judging by the Spotify radio that appears on my Last.fm account, and the built-in Last.fm integration in Spotify’s client. It probably wouldn’t hurt Spotify to take that partnership further and seek Last.fm’s input on recommendation engines.

Closing Thoughts

Even though I do have several specific complaints about Spotify, the sound quality and satisfactory selection of the music on the service have kept me coming back so far. If I had some confirmation on if Beats or Sony filled in some of the gaps in Spotify’s library, then I might make the switch. Until then, I am content.

As for Last.fm, a site on which I am also a paying member, I am not really sure what their business plan is anymore. Now that I’m paying $10 monthly to use Spotify, I can grant Last.fm that their $3 monthly charge was quite good, but without any radio streaming services, Last.fm is not really offering anything to me as a customer anymore. I get to beta test experimental features (which come rarely), I get discounts at an as-of-yet nonexistent Last.fm store, and I get tag-filtering on Last.fm’s rather hacky new Youtube-radio player². I like Last.fm as a company, but I am uncertain if I see any reason to continue to subscribing, and they have almost certainly seen a decline in subscriptions due to their announcement.

Although their business may be in trouble, I hope Last.fm is able to stick around. The data they have kept about my and others’ music listening habits over the years is a time capsule unlike any other that I’ve encountered. More than that, Last.fm has optimized the process of music discovery for people who take the time to use the site.

People misjudge that quality of the site. Some people overestimate it: they think you can judge someone’s entire worth by their taste in music; some people underestimate it: they find the site merely narcissistic and distracting. I believe I’ve found an important middle-ground, and get a lot out of the site because of it. I do believe I can judge people based on their profile, but I’m not judging them so much as whether or not I’d like the music they like. In other words, whether or not I could take a recommendation from them and agree with it.

I’ve been looking at people’s profiles and listening to their favorite bands for years, and because I put that time in, and learned how to spot a hit or a miss, I now have a reliable way of finding music I will like, even if I know nothing about the music itself. Almost every band on my greatest hits list came from Last.fm, and for that I thank them.


¹Of course, if you record or rip some crappy audio to begin with, whether or not you store it on vinyl, FLAC, or mp3 isn’t going to make a bit of difference

²It is basically their old radio service, except it piggybacks off Youtube for actually providing the content. In short, it just plays music off of youtube videos. I’m not impressed.

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