I love and hate internet radio. On the one hand, it avoids some of the more egregious problems of terrestrial radio—obnoxious DJs, endless commercials, and the same few hits played over and over until you can’t stand them anymore (I still can’t listen to Goo Goo Dolls or Matchbox 20)—but it seems like most internet radio sites still haven’t figured out how to do it right. And strangely, they all seem to have the same few problems.
Underplaying the Music You Want to Hear
This is probably my biggest frustration. I want to hear a particle artist or song, so I thumbs-up it or favorite it or love it, and then . . . I never hear it. The site seems to have that artist or song in their catalogue, so what gives? Why don’t they play the stuff that they apparently have access to that I told them I’d like to hear? A lot of artists I like get played only rarely, and many never get played at all.
I heard a Toad the Wet Sprocket song on Slacker the other day for the first time in months. Why do I never hear them? I have no idea. Their music is apparently available on Slacker, but it almost never comes up. Every internet radio site I’ve tried—Pandora, Last.fm, Slacker, Jango—has the same problem. It doesn’t really matter how many song or artist seeds I provide or how much stuff I favorite or thumbs-up. They’re all pretty similar in this regard.
It’s especially frustrating when I hear a song that I like from an artist that I’m not familiar with and want to hear more of. I’ll favorite the song or the artist or even create a new station just based on that artist, and I still hardly hear anything from them. Pandora is supposed to be specially geared towards music discovery, but I have to say that they kind of suck at it. But now that I have access to Spotify, when I hear a song from a new artist that I like, I’ll just listen to an album or two there instead.
Overplaying the Music You Don’t Want to Hear So Much
This is the flip side of problem #1. There’s plenty of music out there that I kind of like or don’t mind, and this is what seems to be played the most. Pandora seems to be the worst, which is why I got sick of them and started going elsewhere. I’ve provided dozens of artist and song seeds and probably hundreds of thumbs-ups, but half of what I get is this mediocre indie stuff that I just don’t care for that much. I kept expecting it to grow on me, but it never did.
On Slacker, I get lots of Weezer and Bush and Jakob Dylan. Not that I dislike any of them, but I’m not crazy about any of them either. And it’s always the same four or five songs from each one. Weezer apparently has eight albums, but I still only get four or five songs from them. Yeah, they’re great, but can I hear something else please?
Sometimes, as if to spite me, internet radio will play music from an artist I like, but only their songs that I don’t like. For example, I like Wilco, but I think their album Sky Blue Sky was kind of a dud, so I don’t really want to hear it. So what Wilco songs does Slacker play? The same three or four songs from Sky Blue Sky, plus the occasional song from A.M. (my second-least-favorite album), but nothing else. Again, they have six other albums. How about you play something from one of them?
Binary Rating Systems
Every site out there gives you the option to love/favorite/thumbs-up or hate/ban/thumbs-down songs or artists, but none of them give you more nuanced control. Out of all the internet radio sites I’ve tried, I’ve seen only one that got this right: Launchcast, which is now defunct. On Launchcast, you could rate things between 0 (meaning it was banned and would never play again) and 100. If I kind of liked something but didn’t want to hear it a lot, I could rate it around 60 or 70 and count on the fact that it wouldn’t be played all the time. If I got tired of it, I could lower the rating. If it grew on me, I could bump it up. The stuff I really loved got rated 90 and above, and—miracle of miracles!—it got played the most.
On every other site, you love and hate everything equally. And if you don’t commit one way or the other, they’ll just keep playing it anyway until you get so sick of it that you ban it. But I hate committing to banning something that I feel indifferent to, so I end up burning through my limited number of skips to get to songs I actually want to hear.
This isn’t that big of a problem, but I’m still surprised at how common it is. I would assume that these sites would get their music straight from the record labels, but oftentimes it seems like it’s all been uploaded from someone’s mess of a mistagged music collection. It’s especially bad on Last.fm, where I’ve seen songs with the wrong titles, live or acoustic versions listed as album versions, and missing tags. Slacker has some problems, too, but it’s not as bad. The weirdest is a karaoke version of an album I own. How on earth did that end up on Slacker? Why would I want to listen to the instrumental version? I’m not going to blast it from my cube at work and sing along.
Maybe It’s Not All Bad
For all my griping, I do get a lot of enjoyment out of various custom internet radio sites. They’ve actually introduced me to about a dozen different artists whose albums I now own. And it’s all free (because there’s no way I’m paying for one of these services), so I guess I can’t really complain. Plus, the variety of options out there means that when I get sick of one site or another, I can try something else, at least until it annoys me too much. And Spotify is a nice alternative, though it obviously doesn’t fill the same role as custom radio stations.
But I still wish someone would bring Launchast back.