Review: 6 Internet Radio Sites Help You Discover New Music

Internet radio is enjoying an explosion of new services that could make it a viable replacement for broadcast radio -- if the record industry's allies in D.C. don't kill it first.

David DeJean, Contributor

April 13, 2007

15 Min Read

Internet radio and services that deliver personalized streams of music -- and help you discover new music and artists --are growing exponentially. In fact, they seem to be becoming a viable medium for promoting recorded music -- possibly replacing the shrinking broadcast radio audience. That makes it pretty ironic that the recording industry's aggressive push for performance royalties could kill Internet radio just as it shows some promise of throwing the record companies a life ring.

What's happening is that Internet radio is entering a new phase of its development. At first it was generalized, as broadcast radio stations streamed their over-the-air signals online as a promotional device. Then it became specialized, as Internet-only "stations" were created to serve niche markets. Now it is being personalized and, inevitably, socialized.

Personalization lets listeners tell a site to "play music like this" by seeding their channel with a few favorite artists, tracks, or albums; the site then matches the user to more music. The simple way is to funnel the user into a playlist. But more and more, advanced sites are beginning apply algorithms that pick tracks based on the user's real-time feedback. On the cutting edge of this method are sites like Pandora,, and Slacker.

Socialization is, of course, the melding of social networking with music sites. New music sites aren't immune, after all, from the pressure to be the next MySpace. Done well, the combination can introduce a new dimension to the search for new music and artists by letting you rate or tag tracks, share playlists, and listen on other people's channels. Done poorly, it can feel like a time-wasting invasion of privacy. Yahoo's LAUNCHcast selections are ratings-based, while and Tagworld encourage you to add descriptive tags to tracks.

In this roundup, I look at six current Internet radio sites in terms of how well they deliver music you want to hear, and how well they help you find new music to add to your personal playlists: Pandora,, Slacker, TagWorld,, and LAUNCHcast. (Note: Since this roundup was written, I've come across several other noteworthy services, which I cover in a follow-up blog entry.)

Most of these sites give you a "love it/hate it" option -- click "love it" and favorite tracks show up more often, "hate it" and banned tracks are supposedly gone forever. But all of the sites get more sophisticated than this, and each does it a little differently.

A note for those who dislike ads: While most of these services are drenched in advertising, generally I didn't find it offensive, Why? Because it's appropriate: If you hear something you really, really like, you just might want to buy it. Paradoxically, though, this formula of listen-and-buy -- the same formula that has helped broadcast radio and the record companies prosper together for decades, -- could be a potential casualty of the recent rate-setting pronouncements by the Copyright Royalty Board, which imposed massive increases in performance fees on Internet radio stations (but not against broadcast radio) as a result of music-industry lobbying.

Pandora is currently the gold standard of music discovery sites. As with most of these sites, after you create an account, you enter an artist or song and Pandora creates a station for you.

Pandora is especially easy to get started with, and the results are almost always listenable. In fact, Pandora is in a class by itself as far as finding unfamiliar but satisfying music and artists. The reason is the way the site picks the music it plays. Pandora is built on the Music Genome Project, which uses musicians and music experts to tag the tracks it plays with using some 400 attributes. It sounds far-fetched, but the full list of attributes is available on Wikipedia.

The upside of this process is that you're more likely to hear something unfamiliar because tracks are picked for their structural similarities rather than the popularity of the artist or the song. There is a downside, too: Pandora seems to do less well at recognizing musical genres than playlist-driven sites do. For example, I couldn't quickly create a "country gospel" station because the artists and musical attributes are too intertwined with secular country music.

Also, Pandora stations can "wander" -- the music content moves away from what you originally wanted to hear -- especially if you don't start with an adequate sample of the artists and songs you want, or you don't train the playlist by using the "love it/hate it" controls. (The LifeHacker site has a good set of tips and tricks for improving Pandora's playlists.)

While Pandora doesn't carry as heavy a burden of social-networking features as, it offers some interesting and useful ways to learn about new artists and music from other users. The Genome Project staff itself offers a series of blogs and podcasts with links to stations it has built. You can also search for user-created stations or user profiles associated with particular songs or artists, and drill down into the data until you strike inspiration. A search for stations related to "Delaney and Bonnie," for example, turns up a station, "Maggie May Radio." Display its profile and you can see the artists and songs used to seed the station, and the 138 "thumbed-up" tracks, and the 77 "thumbed-down." You can use any item in all this data to launch a new station of your own.

The surest sign of Pandora's success is the way it's being accessorized with add-ons and hacks. Wikipedia lists applications that move the Pandora player to a separate window and add ways to control the player through devices like the Wii Remote. Others, like OpenPandora and PandoraFM add the tracks you play in Pandora to your profile. Other add-ins let you capture the tracks you listen to as MP3 files, although recording any of these stream music services is of dubious legality.

All this information gets mulched into social-networking widgets -- "quilts" of album cover thumbnails for MySpace, "charts" that embed .GIF files of lists of your favorite tracks or albums in your Web pages, and text feeds in several formats, including plain text, XML, and RSS. works hard to put you in touch with other users -- you can publish a journal about your musical choices, you can belong to "neighborhood" groups of listeners with similar musical tastes. You can even look at lists of upcoming live events in your area and find out what other users are going.

Unfortunately, doesn't give you as much control over the music it plays for you as it does its social networking tools. You can see what's playing and read more about the artist, and you can see a list of recently played tracks, but if you want to tag, love, or ban a track you have to do it while it's playing -- there are no second chances. The artist write-ups don't seem to be up to the quality of other services, and the music choices makes seem . . . ordinary. To put that another way, the other users of will probably be the source of whatever new and unexpected musical discoveries you make on this service, not the playlists of the stations you create.

Slacker is less about social networking than most of the other music discovery sites, and more about expanding its delivery channels.

Right now "Personal Radio" functions as a free music discovery site: you create custom stations by choosing multiple artists and songs, then set "popularity" (hits, familiar, unfamiliar, fringe), "year" ("current" to "classic"), and "favorites" (max to min) -- all presumably attributes that have been tagged for each track in its music library. The Slacker library is extensive, and even relatively unstructured stations, seeded with just a few artist names, produce good, listenable results with a mix of familiar and unfamiliar music.

But has ambitions beyond standard play-it-on-your-PC Internet radio. The Web site describes three upcoming products:

  • A Jukebox software package will combine the Slacker player with a music library manager and support a premium music service that will cost $7.50 a month, according to the early PR releases.

  • The Slacker Personal Radio Player will include integrated WiFi, and connect to your PC to let download your customized station definitions. Combined with a caching system, the player will deliver personalized audio even when you aren't in WiFi range, and also support MP3, WMA, and video files. Pricing will depend on the storage capacity of the device.

  • Finally, a Slacker car kit scheduled for introduction in the second half of 2007 will update the Personal Radio Player with new content through a satellite broadcast system: Slacker car-top antennas will receive high-speed music feeds from satellites. provides an easy-to-use interface that puts the most frequently used functions closest to hand. A set of options lets you display good information on the artists currently playing, and maintains an accessible list of recently played tracks, which is a real plus.

Until the Slacker hardware is available there's not much you can do with your customized stations once you get them fine-tuned: a "Send to a Friend" feature doesn't actually let a friend tune into your station, but only puts the base URL into an e-mail message. Clearly, in its current state, Slacker is more or less a beta product with big ambitions.

TagWorld is an opportunistic social-networking site -- whatever you want to do, it's got it: music, of course, but also photos, groups, blogs, and videos. Like, it mines its own metadata for social-networking purposes. One way to discover new music is to prospect among its many charts: "most played," "most visited," "most voted," and so forth. Its categories by genre are another discovery path: You click on a type of music you like in order to see bands and hear sample tracks.

That’s good, because the music TagWorld plays seems especially subject to the "wander" problem, to the point that you probably won't be able to start TagWorld and just sit back to listen. I tried starting with James Taylor and four tracks later I was assaulted by Slipknot's "My Plague." If there's an algorithm behind this kind of playlist, it needs work.

For a social-networking site, TagWorld doesn't provide much way to use music to interact with other users -- you can't save a station or a list of favorite artists or tracks and share it with others, and you can't see other users' favorites in a click-and-play context.

A few years ago, would have been called a portal, because it's a central access point to a collection of stations -- something like 6,500, according to Wikipedia. No socialization here, and only limited personalization, but specialization by the bucketful. It was easy to find my country gospel station here -- not just one, but many. Somewhere in the lengthy list of genres there's bound to be just the station you've been looking for.

Finding something you'll like, though, is basically a slog through the lists of stations. Once you find it, you can add it to your "presets" page, at least, but a little social networking would be a big help to the music discovery. There's a recommendations page, but it's limited. The search function is a help, but it's useful mostly for getting you to the head of a shorter list. It would be nice if you could do things like see the presets pages of users who share your interest in a particular station or artist.

The Live365 stations are commercial radio (in all the senses of that term) on the Web, which means that they carry a familiar freight of ads and station ID promos along with the music. If you'd like to eliminate the ads, or the basic Live365 service isn't enough for you, you can buy a VIP subscription ($5.95 a month, with discounts for longer terms) that eliminates the commercials and offers even more stations, many of them at higher audio quality.

Yahoo's LAUNCHcast is, like, an aggregation of stations that span genres and interests (without the commercials and other broadcast radio affectations), but it also provides personalization and socialization functions that are nicely integrated into its interface.

LAUNCHcast is driven by your ratings of artists and tracks. You can see a list of recently played tracks and rate them, and display and edit the lists of artists and tracks you've thumbed-up and thumbed-down. All this data is used to program the playlist for your personalized station. The results can be variable. If you don't train the playlist by adding ratings, the "wander" factor can be extremely high here. (Or is anything more than random selection at work? How do you get from Willie Nelson to Fallout Boy and then boy-band NLT?) On the downside, you can very quickly train most of the surprise factor out of the music.

The social networking begins when you make your station -- your musical preferences -- public. You can e-mail it to friends, who can "subscribe" to your station as part of the definition of their own station. Similarly, you can choose other LAUNCHcast users to be "influencers" of your station, using a process that matches you to other users through artists and tracks you have both rated highly -- exactly the sort of functionality that's missing from TagWorld, for instance.

While LAUNCHcast offers one of the higher-quality experiences among the music-discovery sites, it does have a couple of liabilities. One is that it runs only in Internet Explorer -- if you're a Foxfire partisan you're out of luck. The other is that while the basic version of LAUNCHcast is free, Yahoo sells a premium version, called LAUNCHcast Plus, for $3.99 a month (or $35.88 a year). Many of the more interesting LAUNCHcast stations and social-networking features are available only if you're a paying customer.

Performance Royalty Ruling Puts Future of Internet Radio In Doubt

On March 2, 2007, the Copyright Royalty Board released a proposed rule that would set new performance royalty rates for online radio stations. The ruling would radically alter the existing rates, which expired at the end of 2005, both in terms of amounts and the way they are assessed.

Performance royalties are something new in the U.S. entertainment business. While broadcasters and entertainment venues like concert halls and nightclubs have historically paid royalties to music composers, radio and television -- and the Internet -- came into being without paying any royalties to the performers of recorded music, or the record companies that distributed them.

That changed in 1995, when the recording industry was able to insert provisions into the Digital Performance in Sound Recordings Act of 1995 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 that established a license requirement for some digital transmissions of recorded performances. (Broadcast radio and TV still don't pay a performance royalty, and some Internet uses of recordings aren't covered by the licenses.)

The first round of licensing fees, announced in 2002 and set to to run through 2005, created such controversy at the time that Congress stepped in to force a redraft. The process of renegotiating the fees in 2006 culminated in the Copyright Royalty Board essentially accepting the music industry's proposal, made by SoundExchange, the company the music industry set up to collect the royalties.

According to the new ruling, the basic rate, which in 2005 was .0076 cents per song, would go to .08 cents for 2006, .11 cents in 2007, .14 in 2008, .18 cents in 2009 and .19 cents in 2010. The new rule also added a flat fee of $500 per station. An alternative deal struck in 2002 that allowed small Webcasters to pay royalties of a flat 12% of revenue would disappear, along with other provisions, including a concession for public broadcasters.

The result of the March 2nd announcement was an immediate outcry from the Internet radio community and predictions that the new royalties will mean the end of Internet radio. Kurt Hanson, founder of online radio company Accuradio, for example, told The Wall Street Journal that the new rules would likely raise Accuradio's performance royalty payments from about $50,000 to about $600,000 -- more than Accuradio's total 2006 revenue. (Doc Searls provides a lengthy look at the issues involved in a blog entry titled Internet Radio on Death Row at

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House panel on telecommunications and the Internet, weighed in against the board's proposal, and several organizations immediately demanded a rehearing by the Board, including National Public Radio (NPR), The Digital Media Association (DiMA), and Clear Channel Radio. The Copyright Royalty Board has agreed to re-hear the issue.

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