26 June 02005

Playlist sharing services: a comparative review

Since my series of postings about different playlist sharing experiments, Wired has picked up on the theme with a feature on the playlist phenomenon a few days ago. This focuses on the social and community potential of sharing playlists, though, in my opinion, it's important not to get carried away with the everyone-a-DJ concept: if DJs act as 'filters' and mediators for new music then, when more people become filters, you start to need filters for the filters…

Over the last few weeks I've tried five different online playlist services: you can see my pages on Webjay, Soundflavor, Upto11.net and Art of the Mix. I've used GarageBand.com as well, but not extensively, since playlists created there are restricted to tracks from other GarageBand.com members. [Update, 19 July 02005: I've now used three further services — see this posting for reviews and comparison.]

Based on that experience here are a few review comments on how each of the services measures up in terms of audio, community features, usability, portability of playlists, and their main selling points.

First to say a bit more about what I mean by these criteria:

  • audio — how straightforward it is to play the playlists, and whether users hear full tracks or just samples;
  • community features — scope to rate and comment on playlists, to copy songs from another playlist to your own, or to contribute to a shared discourse about artists and songs;
  • usability — this covers how much effort is required to do the basic tasks of playlist sharing, such as finding tracks, re-sequencing tracks and generally getting up and running with your playlist;
  • portability of playlists — refers to the ability to export playlists as RSS feeds, incorporate them in blog sites, or 'port' them to other services using the XSPF (XML Shareable Playlist Format, pronounced 'spiff'!) specification;
  • main selling points — what are the unique features of the service, and what usage scenarios do these support.
Table: Overview of Playlist Sharing Services
Name: Art of the Mix Soundflavor (beta) Upto11.net (beta) Webjay
Audio None, unless playlist creator provides link to where a track or sample can be downloaded 30 second samples of a reasonably large catalogue (click to play) No direct links to audio, but links to iTunes, Amazon etc may provide samples (usually no more than 30 seconds) Playlist, usually consisting of full tracks, can be played from beginning to end
Community Other users can provide feedback and ratings. Also other community features — see below. Provides opportunity to rate but not comment on other lists. You can identify 'members you trust' which will inform the recommendations you are given. No comments on other playlists. Users can in theory comment on/edit artist profiles, which are based on Wikipedia content, though the integration between upto11 and Wikipedia is not yet robust. Perhaps because this is a beta service, community activity appears to be low. Other users can comment on playlists. They can also copy tracks into their playlists or 'cannibalise' whole lists.
Usability Simple, no-frills approach. Re-sequencing tracks may be a lengthy task. Extensive re-sequencing of tracks in a playlist takes a lot of time. Finding tracks is very straightforward, and, because the track details are taken from a database of nearly 10 million songs, some consistency of track naming is ensured. Re-sequencing of playlists is clumsy, but possible. Tracks can be easily copied from others' playlists, but finding them from scratch requires time and search skills. Other tasks, including re-sequencing of playlists, are fairly straightforward, if not drag-and-drop foolproof or particularly attractive.
Portability Some XML web services available but require geek know-how. None Only basic RSS feeds from playlists. Any playlist can be exported in XSPF format, as well as RSS/Podcast integration. Details of the API (Application Programming Interface) are published.
Special features & selling points Includes forums and blogs as well as comments on playlists. Perhaps because the site has been running so long, it appears to have active and well-informed participants. Provides collaborative filtering based on your playlists, recommending other tracks and other playlists you might like. Links to iTunes and Amazon for purchases. Aims to offer a music discovery service by offering recommendations from its database, based on artist preferences. Provides space for playlist 'liner notes' and links to band profiles. You can actually play the playlists on Webjay from beginning to end — and using your favourite media player software, whatever that is. Playlists can be integrated into blogs and Flash media.

[Update, 19 July 02005: I've now produced an updated table with three more services.]

What becomes clear from these comparisons is that the services are aiming at different things. Art of the Mix has been going for seven and a half years, since before even the first Napster existed. It wasn't built on the assumption of ready access to online music, as is implied by the fact that it provides support to print out playlists as formatted cassette or CD covers. The focus is on a community of enthusiasts commenting on music, and it appears to have a real momentum for this (Art of the Mix is, so far, the only site where other people have commented on one of my playlists).

By contrast, Webjay is very much a service for the online music sharing age, and it counts Creative Commons-oriented labels like Magnatune among its advocates. It is unique among the services reviewed here in that you can press play on Webjay and sit back and enjoy an hour or two of music without having to do more clicking and fiddling about on your computer. At the same time, if the tracks have been properly entered, you can visit the sites from which the tracks originate to find out more about the artists, if you wish.

Soundflavor and Upto11.net are more similar to each other, if not to the others. Both have built-in databases of tracks, and you have to choose your playlists from within these databases. Then, according to your selections, the services offer you recommendations for other music you might like — based on collaborative filtering. For most of the tracks in the databases they have short samples, apparently serviced by Amazon or another online retailing source. And it's from referrals to these retailers that the services presumably hope to generate a part of their revenue.

Upto11.net boasts a database of nearly 10 million songs (I can't find out where this database comes from, but I'd speculate that MusicBrainz might have something to do with it). So when I was working on my Rose and the Briar playlist, I was able to find multiple alternatives for most of the tracks for my Upto11.net version (though nothing for Barry Patterson's Trial of Mary Maguire). The Soundflavor database seems to be much shallower — here's the Rose and the Briar on Soundflavor.

Soundflavor is less 'open' but correspondingly more reliable than Upto11.net: when you click on the 'sample audio' link in Soundflavor it usually works (though it is based on the US version of iTunes, so your track may not be found if you are in the UK and it is not in the UK iTunes store). In Upto11.net, being a beta version, the integration with other sites is pretty buggy: when I tried to follow some links from Wikipedia-syndicated content they didn't work, and neither did the edit/comment feature; and the links to Amazon do not work for 'various artists' albums (e.g. the link to the Premiers' Farmer John from this playlist is not found because it's on the Nuggets boxed set, whereas the link spawns a search for an album called Nuggets (disc 1) by the Premiers, which doesn't exist).

The activity levels also suggest Upto11.net has some way to go before its community is as lively as Art of the Mix's: in the 26 days of this month so far, only six playlists have been added to Upto11.net, and two of those are from me.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Human-Computer Interaction, Music and Multimedia, Playlists, Reviews on 26 June 02005 | TrackBack

You missed one.....

We have had thousands of people create portable playlists since we launched this feature a month ago or so.

Big difference in our technology, we enable quick/rapid blogging or publishing of your playlists, the blog widget that can be published to all the major platforms includes audio-clips and album art.



Posted by: MIchael Downing on 5 July 02005 at 12:26 AM

I'm suprised their arent more online music labels that could promote less well known bands - sure web2.0 helps promote unsigned bands via social networking but as a business why does a record label need music shops and cds anymore.

Posted by: Web Developer on 11 January 02011 at 12:05 AM

You may find there are more of these labels than you realise - but, by definition, they are not very well known themselves. Cases like Magnature, Artists Without A Label, SliceThePie, and so on. Then, because they are creatively reconstructing what it means to be a label, some of them don't look like labels e.g. Amie Street, which you could argue is not a label, but does help promote less well known bands through its model.

The fact is, no one has yet got rich and famous by promoting less well known bands using Web 2.0 models.

Posted by: David Jennings on 11 January 02011 at 6:57 AM
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