7 January 02006

Playlist portability: comparative review

One thing leads to another and, when we saw Barb Jungr play just before Christmas, I got a copy of her Every Grain of Sand album of Bob Dylan covers, which triggered another bout of my recurrent mania for these cover versions. I went through all my old covers albums again, ripped my favourite versions onto iTunes, scrabbled round on the web once again and even ordered a further album (The Bob Dylan Songbook).

I ended up with 81 songs in an iTunes playlist, which fills my iPod Shuffle to just over 80% full. The rest of this posting is the story of what happened when I tried to upload and publish this playlist using three different playlist sharing services.

When I reviewed playlist sharing services before, portability was one of the factors I considered — how can you import and export your playlist to and from the service? However, my reviews of this factor were based on inspection only — not trying it out for real. Using iTunes it takes very little time to create a playlist from tracks in your digital collection, compared with using one of the online services. With iTunes, firstly, all the basic track data (title, artist etc) is already there, courtesy of your music store or Gracenote, so no typing of track names. Secondly, iTunes offers drag-and-drop for organising the sequence of your playlist, and copying multiple tracks at once, whereas few web-based services yet offer this ease of use. So if you can use iTunes (or WinAmp etc), you'd be a fool not to.

The three playlist services I used for this exercise are the only three I'm aware of that allow you to upload playlists from iTunes: FIQL, MusicStrands and GoFish. [Update, 8 August 02006: GoFish has withdrawn its playlist functions. Other services such as Mixlister now allow uploading of playlists.]

The issues I was concerned with were, first and foremost, how quick and easy was it to get my playlist data into the service, then how well would the services recognise the tracks (some of which are reasonably obscure), and how easy would it be for others to hear them. The table below shows what I found.

Table: Portability Features of Playlist Sharing Services
Name: FIQL MusicStrands GoFish
Format for importing from iTunes Text file XML file XML file
Import process FIQL just reads the track and artist information out of the playlist and dumps it into your new FIQL playlist. No matching takes place until you save and submit the playlist. The matching takes 5-20 minutes, and then you can see which of your tracks have been found on iTunes Music Store, Rhapsody, Buy.com or MSN Music. Sometimes I noticed anomalies, such as when one track on an album was found but others from the same album were not. At this point all you can do is guess as to how to help FIQL recognise the tracks. Taking the tilde off the n in Señor helped in one case. Removing Gillian Welch and David Rawlings as Robyn Hitchcock's co-performers in the 'artist' field achieved a match in another case. Whether other tweaks would help achieve more matches, i can't tell. MusicStrands gave me a very long 'waiting' page when uploading my playlist, such that I assumed the upload had failed after 15 or 20 minutes. But when I went to check my list of playlists, everything was there, ready and waiting for me: I just had to edit the notes/description field for the playlist, and add any tags I wanted. Tracks only appear on the playlist if they are recognised: unrecognised tracks are just deleted from it. Ironically, since I believe MusicStrands is built in Spain, it also had difficulty recognising Señor, so I re-added that track manually. Importing my XML playlist to GoFish turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. The track order was completely buggered up (see for yourself by comparing the playlists as linked below), and several tracks were shown as unrecognised even when I knew, after several attempts at this process and some manual searching, that GoFish did have the tracks on their database. It appeared that, during the import process, GoFish was somehow changing 'Tim O'Brien' to 'Tim O' Brien' (note the extra space) and then saying it couldn't find tracks for 'Tim O' Brien', so I had to change all of these manually and then search again. Similarly, GoFish changed one track's artist field from 'Robyn Hitchcock With Gillian Welch & David Rawlings' to ' David Rawlings' — of course, it couldn't recognise that track by David Rawlings, so I had to change the artist field to 'Robyn Hitchcock'. As with MusicStrands, unrecognised tracks cannot be included on the playlist. I tweaked the metadata for several other unrecognised tracks to see if that would help GoFish find them, but it appeared that these others just were not in their database. GoFish had no difficulty with Señor, however!
Success rate in recognising tracks Following the adjustments mentioned above, FIQL found matches for 12 out of 29 tracks on iTunes and 12 out of 29 on Rhapsody. Only 4 out of 29 on Buy.com. Matches were shown for all tracks on MSN Music, but clicking the links showed that these were just links to searches, not links to tracks (e.g. instead of hearing a sample of Barb Jungr when clicking on one of her tracks, I was asked "Did you mean to search for barb jungle?" No, Bill, I didn't). Altogether only 14 out of 29 tracks were recognised by at least one of the sample/purchase partners. To be fair, the fact that 8 of the tracks are from one album (Barb Jungr's) that FIQL doesn't recognise obviously pushes their success rate down — I've got a higher proportion of matches on FIQL for other playlists. MusicStrands initially recognised 26 of the 29 tracks — 27 if you make allowances for the 'Señor' problem. It has made one or two slightly bizarre amendments to the data, such as crediting all the Tim O'Brien tracks to Tim and Mollie O'Brien (she's only mentioned as one of the backing singers on the album sleeve). If you discount those tracks for which MusicStrands does not have one-click audio samples, the figure falls to 20 out of 29. Following the adjustments mentioned above, GoFish recognised 25 of the 29 tracks. It offers one-click audio samples for all of these.
Listening to the tracks If you have a Rhapsody subscription you can hear full versions of the 12 tracks FIQL has recognised in the Rhapsody catalogue. If you use the US iTunes Music Store, you can click links to hear samples of the 12 tracks FIQL has recognised in the iTunes Music Store catalogue. If you use other music services (stores or subscriptions) you can't hear anything very easily — good luck to you with searching on MSN Music. You can hear 30-second clips of each of 20 tracks on the playlist using RealPlayer or Windows Media Player. There does not seem to be any way to cue up all 20 to play in sequence, as a kind of 'sample' playlist. The GoFish media player works much better on my Mac than it did last time I tried it a few months ago. You can hear 30-second clips of each of 25 tracks on the playlist using this player, either alone or in playlist sequence (which isn't the sequence I intended for reasons given above).
See the playlist(s) I imported Cover Me In Bob (Part 2) is the playlist to which the above figures relate. Cover Me In Bob (Part 1) includes 50 cover versions of Dylan songs from the first decade of his career. Together these two playlists include all but two of the tracks in my original iTunes playlist. Cover Me In Bob (Part 2) is uploaded from an XML file exported from iTunes. The abridged version of Cover Me In Bob (Part 1) was created by searching for tracks from the MusicStrands database, not by importing. Cover Me In Bob (Part 2) is uploaded from the same XML file used for MusicStrands, and includes the tracks I was able to find by tweaking the metadata as described above. [Update, 8 August 02006: GoFish has withdrawn its playlist functions.] I also created the Cover Me In Bob (Part 1) playlist on GoFish, with similar difficulties, but when I tried to import a second playlist, the two seemed to get corrupted together, so I had to delete them both and start again.

To summarise, FIQL was probably the easiest and quickest for getting the list of tracks onto the web, but has the poorest results when it comes to recognising the tracks, and is least useful for hearing them. Importing the playlist to GoFish was a pain in the arse, but conversely it offers the best listening experience once the list is established. MusicStrands falls between these poles, with pretty straightforward uploading, good recognition of tracks and moderate listening experience.

Finally, a few words about exporting playlists from these sites. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of them provide a straightforward way of exporting full playlists, which would make it to easy for you to switch your allegiance to another service provider. However, MusicStrands is the exception to this, providing a 'Download this playlist' button, which provides an XML version of the playlist. I could then upload this XML file to GoFish, and I could import it to iTunes, though in the latter case only a minority of the tracks could be found again (even though they are all in my library), presumably because the metadata had been changed by MusicStrands, as discussed above.

What some of the playlist services provide is the means to include 'badges' for your playlists on your other sites. So here are, first, the FIQL badge for my Dylan playlist, then the GoFish equivalent, and finally a badge for a different playlist from the Plurn playlist site.

If this page is playing music, and you want it to stop, press the Stop button below

get one at Plurn.com.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Human-Computer Interaction, Music and Multimedia, Playlists on 7 January 02006 | TrackBack

Thanks for the write-up about Mixlister! We wanted to create a place that people could go when they were looking for the perfect mix to suit any occasion ex: parties, weddings, roadtrips, etc...
It's hard to think of all the songs you love, but if everyone helps contribute to your playlist you can build a really fun mix of music easily! Also you can customize the background of your playlist and add to it your blog or myspace.

Posted by: Kelly on 19 May 02008 at 7:40 PM
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