Spotify updates its radio function, takes on Pandora

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The popular music service Spotify announced today an update and improvement to its radio function, one that aims to go head to head with Pandora, the online streaming service that handpicks playlists based on listeners’ favorite artists and musical styles. To wit: The Spotify app, once available only to premium subscribers, is now also available to users of the free service.

The major update is aimed at mobile devices, an outlet on which Pandora has a virtual lock when it comes to listening to streamed music on the go. That company’s popular app is ubiquitous on smart phones; by updating its application and concentrating on radio, Spotify hopes to parlay its increased visibility into taking a chunk of Pandora’s market share.

So that’s the business aspect. But how does Spotify measure up from a listener’s perspective? I’ve always been of the mind that there are two types of listeners: those who prefer to pick their own soundtrack, and those who rely on tastemakers to help them match their mood with their music. That’s one reason why I have been a vocal fan of Spotify and have devoted less attention to Pandora. I choose my music, and opt for other means of discovery. But I have the luxury of access to a lot of music.

Pandora is an amazing app and has become ubiquitous for a reason; half the time when I hear a good song in a shop or coffeehouse and ask who it is, the clerk responds that it’s running through Pandora (and, usually, that he/she doesn’t know who the artist is, because the computer’s running the program in another room). But the lack of choice is frustrating for those of us who, when hearing a good new song, want to hand-pick the next few songs by that artist.


Spotify offers the best of both worlds. If, for example, your top track of the week is by Munchi and you are interested in expanding your knowledge of all the various strands of moombahton, the app creates a playlist that offers lots of options. If you were to highlight that list and ask for more, it will generate more. The best part is, when something strikes you, you can hear the rest of the EP or album that the track comes from.

Other new additions include an ability to personalize stations based on which tracks you like (Pandora offers this too); create stations based on friends’ tips; and save tracks to Spotify playlists.

One problem: The data usage restrictions, which have always been the biggest hindrance to running Spotify as a mobile app, are still an issue. One user calculated that the application uses 1.2 mb per minute of listening, which adds up quickly if you’re stuck in Southern California traffic and have a data cap. (Though if you’re using a Wi-Fi network, it eats up nothing.)

Whether the algorithms that drive Pandora and Spotify tips are similar, or one has better taste than the other, is yet to be determined. When I popped onto the Carly Rae Jepsen station to hear what they recommend to fans of “Call Me Maybe,” the first track was by Nickelback, which didn’t bode well. But when I added a new station based on the New York indie R&B group Discovery, Spotify led me on a great path that carried through Santigold and Passion Pit to Little Dragon to LCD Soundsystem, and I was impressed by the machine’s nuanced tastes in dance pop.

Hopefully, the next innovation will be an inverse recommender: If you “like” this artist, you’ll “hate” this one -- and I’ll never have to listen to LMFAO ever again.


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-- Randall Roberts
Twitter: @liledit