Rock and pop recommendation websites: Do they live up to the hype?

The growing number of rock and pop recommendation websites claim they can find bands you'll love but have never heard. Rhodri Marsden embarks on a musical mystery tour
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The Independent Culture

www.pandora.com

WHAT DOES IT CLAIM TO DO?

An offshoot of the Music Genome Project, a constantly evolving US-based venture run by a group of musicians who aim to categorise music song by song in what claims to be "most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken".

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Pandora's own group of musicians analyse songs, using over 200 attributes to categorize them. The service then uses this information to build a radio playlist based on the attributes you're fond of.

WHAT KIT DO I NEED?

A computer that runs Windows 2000 and XP, or Mac OS 10.3, and a web browser with Macromedia Flash. It costs £20 per year to remove the adverts.

HOW DO I USE IT?

Pandora supposedly isn't available outside the US, but typing in any five-figure zip code seems to give you access. Sign up, and start creating tailored radio stations by adding songs and artistes that light your candle.

DOES IT REALLY WORK?

My Abba station decided to play Roxette . Why? "This track also uses subtle vocal harmonies and a dynamic female vocalist". But do I like it? No. A taste for Sonic Youth led me to metal band Annihilator. 4/10

SUPER SONIC?

It has a quick, simple interface and minimal set-up is required. The radio format means you can just leave it running and wait until something interesting turns up.

BUM NOTES?

You have to manually compile your lists of favourite songs and artistes. The radio station also has a limit on the number of tracks you can skip through each hour - annoying, when the likes of Roxette persistently rear their head.

www.last.fm

WHAT DOES IT CLAIM TO DO?

The idea was rooted in a research project at Southampton University. "It's fun, it's free, it's all about the music," it says. "Join the social music revolution."

HOW DOES IT WORK?

An "Audioscrobbler" plug-in for your music player (iTunes, WinAmp etc) sends information to last.fm about each track you play. Your playlists are stored with those of thousands of other users, providing a searchable history of peoples' listening habits.

WHAT KIT DO I NEED?

It works with Mac OS X, Windows, Linux and many other systems supported.

HOW DO I USE IT?

Sign up for a free account. Download the right version of the Audioscrobbler plug-in that works with your system, and explore the website at your leisure. To hear some recommended selections, you'll need to download the free last.fm radio player.

DOES IT REALLY WORK?

Powered by a large, music-loving community, the system is hard to fault; it's more about personal recommendations than computer playlists. One user shares my taste - Violent Femmes led me to Johnny Cash. 9/10

SUPER SONIC?

It's fascinating to see what other people are playing - and the stats on your own music are revealing. It's addictive.

BUM NOTES?

Your listening habits are stored for everyone to see - embarrassing if you've just spent a week revisiting your childhood obsession with The Wombles.

uk.music.yahoo.com/launchcast

WHAT DOES IT CLAIM TO DO?

A streaming music service, featuring customised radio stations alongside pre- programmed stations created by Yahoo!'s music experts.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Your station's playlist is adapted as you rate each song that crops up, thus personalising the service over a period of time.

WHAT KIT DO I NEED?

Windows 95 or later along with Windows Media Player 6.4 or later. Mac support is, strangely, restricted to pre-OS X systems.

HOW DO I USE IT?

When signing up, a rather small number of tick boxes are presented in order to give Launchcast an idea of your favourite artists and genres. Within a couple of minutes, your station is online.

DOES IT REALLY WORK?

The unadventurous sign-up list shouldn't put you off; after a few weeks of rating songs it gets more useful. Joni Mitchell led to Gordon Lightfoot. 6/10

SUPER SONIC?

If you're not happy with your radio station (your free account has a limit of 800 songs per month), there are a few crumbs of comfort offered by the other music-related content on Yahoo!

BUM NOTES?

You need to be a BT Yahoo! customer to gain access to the Launchcast Plus service, which gives additional features - but it's nothing that you can't get elsewhere for free.

www.musicip.com

WHAT DOES IT CLAIM TO DO?

"MusicIP makes music more accessible and more enjoyable," it says. It also claims to have the largest collection of tracks related to your own music library.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

On sign-up, the Music IP software scans your mp3 collection for "acoustic signatures", then offers new tracks from its database.

WHAT KIT DO I NEED?

A PC running Windows 2000 or XP - Or a Mac running OS 10.3 or Linux.

HOW DO I USE IT?

Either you go to the "Playground" on the website, where you can find recommended tracks, or download the software that analyses your own collection to build up a more in-depth picture of what it should recommend.

DOES IT REALLY WORK?

Claims that fans of "What's Happening Brother" by Marvin Gaye (far left) will enjoy "Options R" from post-punk band Wire. So much for acoustic signatures. 3/10

SUPER SONIC?

The software does throw up the odd interesting recommendation, but these are limited by MusicIP's database, which only holds "50,000-plus" tracks. Millions more are promised soon.

BUM NOTES?

The software takes an age to analyse your music collection for the first time, and the scope of recommendations is limited at present.

www.audiri.com

WHAT DOES IT CLAIM TO DO?

Focuses on recommending upcoming new bands based on your existing musical tastes. "Find music you like", it states.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Bands submit their music along with a list of artistes they would align themselves with; you can then search the database to try to locate those Arctic Monkeys-soundalikes.

WHAT KIT DO I NEED?

Windows or Mac, running a browser that supports Flash.

HOW DO I USE IT?

It's all pretty simple. Type in a band you like, and watch a plethora of unsigned talent emerge. You can then either listen to the track via the online player, or download songs for keeps.

DOES IT REALLY WORK?

Music that sounds like Steely Dan ? Look no further than Mostly Harmless from Leiden in The Netherlands. "Let's go to the beach," they sing, "because the temperature is not more than a number." True. It doesn't sound like Steely Dan, though. 4/10

SUPER SONIC?

It's an ideal service for the anti-corporate music lover who believes that there's a valuable world of music beyond that offered in record stores.

BUM NOTES?

You're at the mercy of the free-for-all that is the arena of publicity-hungry new bands; anyone can choose to be on there, whether they're any good or not. Good luck.

www.mercora.com

WHAT DOES IT CLAIM TO DO?

Claims to have the world's largest legal music radio network. Its strategy is to "unleash the music, and delight the listener". Has a partnership with the NME.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Via a free downloadable program, it connects you with the personal radio stations of other Mercora users.

WHAT KIT DO I NEED?

It only works on PCs running Windows 2000 or Windows XP.

HOW DO I USE IT?

Register, download and install the Mercora client program. Then search for stations that play music you like, and set up your own station.

DOES IT REALLY WORK?

Searching the database throws up good ideas, linking Nelly Furtado to Sade . With the radio stations, you're left to the tastes of fellow webcasters. 8/10

SUPER SONIC?

A healthy 3 million songs available on the network. It's rumoured that Mercora will move to a browser-based system later this year, which will mean non-Windows users can get involved.

BUM NOTES?

The audio streaming capabilities - for both listening and broadcasting - depend very much on the capacity and reliability of your broadband connection.

www.mystrands.com

WHAT DOES IT CLAIM TO DO?

It describes itself as "the first step to Personal Music Discovery". Its software, MyStrands, works in tandem with Apple's iTunes.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Uses a system called Complex Networks to analyse music. This was developed "after decades of research into artificial intelligence".

WHAT KIT DO I NEED?

Mac OS 10.3 or Windows 2000/XP, with iTunes or Windows Media Player 9.

HOW DO I USE IT?

Create an account, then download the software and iTunes plug-in. Either upload your own playlists directly, or have the software automatically monitor your listening habits.

DOES IT REALLY WORK?

Predominantly useful, but my repeated requests for something a bit like Funkadelic (far left) were rebuffed with advice to go and listen to Depeche Mode instead. 7/10.

SUPER SONIC?

The neat software gives you an instant list of recommendations while you're listening to a track on your computer. The Musicstrands community can give additional help in your search for new sounds.

BUM NOTES?

Not all recommendations can be listened to on the site, and those that can are just 30-second clips, with a link to amazon.co.uk to buy them. Selections are conservative, suggesting this database is smaller than others.

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