23 April 02006

Update on playlist services

In preparing the White Bicycles playlist yesterday, I revisited a subset of the playlist services that I reviewed last year and in January.

Here are some notes on what's changed, plus some notes on different contexts for searching for tracks.

What's been added. FIQL now has a feature that allows you to add links to web pages or online audio files for each track on your playlist. Though I could have sworn this is new since I last looked at FIQL, when I went to edit my Rose and the Briar playlist, I found that some of the tracks already had links. I don't know who could have put them there but me! Anyway, I don't think I've written about that feature before, so I'm writing about it now. Note that this gives FIQL users the scope to link to unlicensed audio tracks, potentially exposing them (FIQL) to the same scaremongering that Reuters targeted at Webjay. [Update, 25 April 02006: FIQL tell me this feature has actually been there all along, but they just made it a little easier to use and separated music links from web page links so they could be identified more easily to users.]

What's been taken away. GoFish seems to have discontinued its playlist sharing service. I can still see the playlists I've created there, but I can't edit them. You can see the playlist 'badges' (as at the foot of this page), but if you click them to see all the tracks, you arrive at a page that says "we were unable to process your request" (example). [Update, 8 August 02006: GoFish has completely withdrawn its playlist functions.] That seems a shame as there were some good features about GoFish's playlist service. Instead they seem to be chasing the video sharing business that YouTube has attracted attention to.

I made four versions of the White Bicycles playlist. Here are links to each of them:

Creating these playlists brought two simple points home to me very clearly: first, the extent and accuracy of the catalogue of tracks is crucial; and second, the combination of search and refining searches by browsing is almost equally important. If your users can't find it, it might as well not be there.

The lack of catalogue search or browse facility in FIQL seems to me to be its achilles heel. I can enter a track by the Watersons, or Whiter Shade of Pale by Procul Harum, on my playlist, but FIQL can't find any links for it them in iTunes or Rhapsody etc. Is that because of a small misspelling (I tried Whiter Shade of Pale and A Whiter Shade of Pale, just in case), or are they really not there at all (can it be true they don't have a Number 1 hit like Whiter Shade of Pale in their catalogue?)? FIQL gives me no way of finding out.

Perhaps, in most scenarios, people will know exactly what tracks they want, but for this playlist I did not. I don't know the work of Lonnie Johnson or Sleepy John Estes, for example, but having read about them in Joe Boyd's book, I wanted to explore some of their music through the playlist. FIQL wouldn't have helped me here: you can't just search or browse on the artist's name. (Well, you can, but searching on Lonnie Johnson just gets a brief biography of the man, plus a series of playlists most of which seem to include Jack Johnson or Robert Johnson — none of which is much use.)

Musicstrands allows you to search by song, album or artist, as well as tags. Mixmatcher allows you to search by album and artist or artist only. If you only know the song title, the process for finding out which album its on is long-winded and clumsy. Upto11.net is the other way round: you can only search by song title in the playlist area of the site. Upto11.net's approach is very quick if you know the exact title of the song you want, and not many artists have done songs with the same title, and it's in their catalogue. But it's slow and frustrating if those conditions don't apply. For example, I wanted a song by the Watersons on my playlist. The song title I searched for returned no results. So I had to go to another part of the site and search for the Watersons, and then browse the Watersons songs on the Upto11 catalogue, before returning to the playlist to search for one of those songs. That was too long-winded when it kept happening, so I gave up.

Like Gracenote, a lot of the catalogue data is very messy. Several services seem to have entries for 'The Move' and 'Move, The' as though they were different bands. Amusingly, Musicstrands has The Move's hit I Can Hear the Grass Grow listed as I Can't Hear the Grass Grow (clearly the drugs weren't working for that version). Upto11.net has similar multiple entries for the Anthology of American Folk Music as I found with Gracenote. And Mixmatcher has a jumble of typos like MRA instead of MRI and only one 'f' in Geoff Muldaur's name.

One of the disappointing things was how little Mixmatcher has changed for the better since I first reviewed it nearly ten months ago. The links to hear the tracks using the icon next to the song title still don't work. Clicking on the search icon next to artists' names gets a familiar error message, "Microsoft OLE DB Provider for ODBC Drivers error '80004005'". Previously I wrote, "Changing the sequence of tracks on a list [using Mixmatcher] is more straightforward than some alternative services". Unless I'm missing something very obvious, I now can't see how to change the sequence of tracks at all.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Curatorial, Human-Computer Interaction, Music and Multimedia, Playlists, Reviews on 23 April 02006 | TrackBack

I'm really astounded by the general unusability of these services. (And I would also add Odeo AND Evoca to the heap of junk.)

Being a radio-savvy person (work done at commercial stations) I thought that I can easily compile a playlist of
- my voice recorded,
- songs hosted by others,
- songs uploaded by myself
and I can incorporate a player into my site. (No downloads allowed, no copyright infringement paranoia.)

None of the above mentioned services could fulfill me. Any ideas?

Posted by: soobrosa on 27 April 02006 at 11:29 AM

Have you tried garageband.com? I don't think it will do quite what you want, but it may be the closest (of the services I've seen).

I believe Garageband will help you make a podcast using other music on the site, your own music, and your own voice.

I haven't tried it myself, so I can't testify to its usability. I wouldn't be surprised if you found similarly awkward to the other services you've tried.

This is where Apple has its advantage with the iTunes/iPod/iTunes Music Store combination. By controlling the hardware, the software and the online environment, they have a much better chance of getting everything to work together seamlessly. The service providers who just have an online environment plus possibly a client download have a much harder time of integrating with third party hardware and services.

Posted by: David Jennings on 27 April 02006 at 4:52 PM

Cheers, I'm checking it up.

Posted by: soobrosa on 28 April 02006 at 12:05 PM
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