If you were paying attention to Crave back in March, you may recall my first expedition to South by Southwest. While I was there, I attended a panel titled The Ultimate Music Recommendation Smackdown, which turned out to be much more letdown than smackdown. Based on the description of the panel, I was expecting a competition of sorts between various Internet-based music recommendation engines, such as Pandora and Last.fm. Unfortunately, there was no real competing and, well, that's just kind of sad, don't you think? Me, too. So I decided to take things into my own hands and pit some of the leading Internet radio stations--nay, music recommendation engines--against each other.
As for how I decided what constituted "leading," I'm afraid I wasn't terribly scientific about it. I essentially just chose four online radio services that are generally well-known in the digital music domain. However, there were also a couple of general requirements--necessary for the structure of the competition--that helped considerably in narrowing down the options. First, the service had to actually stream a string of full-length tracks, not just recommend tracks for you to find (as with Audiobaba). It also had to be a standalone engine (unlike MusicIP and iLike) that allowed the creation of stations based on a given artist or track. With those rules in place, I easily came up with the four competitors: Last.fm, Pandora, Slacker, and LaLa.
The Method: Because not all of the services offer track-based recommendations, I selected an artist--Scissor Sisters--to create stations in each player. Some of the services let you "fine-tune" stations with attribute sliders, but I didn't touch these in the hopes of getting the most central results. I used Internet Explorer to stream the resulting stations, allowing each one to play to 20 tracks, which I kept track of in a spreadsheet. If a track really turned me off, I skipped it and marked it with an "X" on the spreadsheet. Luckily, none of the streams inspired me to skip more than five times as Internet radio has a five-skip-per-hour limit.
The Results: Based solely on skips (fewer of them being better), Pandora came out on top with just one skip, or a pass rate of 95 percent. Next came LaLa with 90 percent, then Slacker with 85 percent, and finally Last.fm with 75 percent. That said, Last.fm came out on top in terms of variety, playing just one song per artist. Pandora played the least amount of mainstream music; Slacker played the most. LaLa wasn't so good at shuffling, often playing blocks of two songs by one artist. (View playlists.)
Of course, in the end it boils down to personal preference. I skipped so much of the Last.fm station because it was more mellow than what I was looking for; Pandora, on the other hand, was playing upbeat tracks, which I tend to lean toward at work. Then there's LaLa, which played the highest ratio of my personal favorites. So who's the winner? Well, far be it from me to tell you that. I've re-created the playlists (as closely as possible) over at LaLa.com, where you can listen to them and judge for yourself.
Note: These links will take you to a page hosting the playlist. Click the big red play button near the top to hear the music.