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Hands on: iTunes Radio

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The Rolling Stones with Bill Wyman, from Bill Wyman's Scrapbook.

The Rolling Stones with Bill Wyman, from Bill Wyman's Scrapbook.

Are you chasing great songs or a certain sound? The answer will determine whether you get satisfaction from iTunes Radio.

There are two main ways to listen to music. One way is to choose an album or playlist and listen to it from start to end. The other way is to let someone else choose the music for you. Some online music services such as Rdio and Spotify offer both options. Others such as Pandora and Last.FM don't let you listen to an entire album from start to end. Instead they serve up a mix of artists based on what they think you might like to hear. This is also how Apple's iTunes Radio works.

iTunes Radio is a free service launched in Australia this week and is built into Apple's iTunes desktop and iOS software. It plays a 10 or 15-second advertisement after every four or so songs. All the ads I've heard so far have been unobtrusive spoken word ads which aren't too annoying, unlike some of the ads I heard the last time I tested Spotify's free service. Hopefully Apple will stick to short, inoffensive ads but the temptation will always be there to ramp up these ads.

iTunes Radio.

iTunes Radio.

If you're an iTunes Match subscriber – $35 per year in Australia – then you don't have to listen to the ads. I didn't bother to renew my initial iTunes Match subscription, so I'm stuck with the ads.

I'm a keen Rdio user, although I use it more for listening to albums and playlists than recommendations. I've also spent time with music services such as Spotify, Rhapsody, Last.FM and Pandora. Apple promises iTunes Radio offers "genre-focused stations that are personalised just for you", but it often feels like it's simply plucking out tracks from similar artists regardless of the song you're actually listening to. Other services such as Last.FM and Pandora seem to pay more attention to the actual track you're listening to, in order to match the style and mood of the music.

I tend to listen to my favourite music rather than exploring what's new. If you're interested in new music and emerging artists then iTunes Radio has a lot to offer. First Play gives early access to new albums, plus you'll find curated stations such as Hot Today, Workout, Unwind and guest programmers. If you've got wide taste in music then it's certainly worth checking out these options.

Choose a band and jump in

I'm a fan of The Rolling Stones so the band seemed like a good starting point for testing iTunes Radio's custom station features. You can create a station by selecting an artist, song or genre, so I launched The Rolling Stones station. There's a slider which lets you favour Hits, Variety or Discovery when choosing tracks. I left it on Hits, which is the default.

First track; The Rolling Stones' Paint it Black – so far, so good. Over the next three-quarters of an hour I heard;

Fortunate Son - Creedence Clearwater Revival
Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd
Just Like a Woman - Bob Dylan
* 15 second American Express ad

Heart of Gold - Neil Young
Love Me Do - The Beatles
Learning To Fly - Tom Petty
You Really Got Me - The Kinks
* 15 second Harvey Norman ad

Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
Midnight Rider - Allman Brothers
Rock and a Hard Place - The Rolling Stones
Born to Run - Bruce Springsteen
* 10 second Pepsi Next ad

All great songs, but some really don't belong in a playlist inspired by The Rolling Stones – such as those specific tracks from Dylan, Young and Springsteen. Often it feels like iTunes simply chooses popular songs from a band's contemporaries, with no regard as to whether the individual tracks are in any way similar to The Rolling Stones. Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run is really out of left field. I appreciate that iTunes is playing songs that I might like, similar to a radio station. But I want to force it to play songs that actually belong together.

Love it or hate it?

Once you've created a station you can customise it by selecting "more like this" on some tracks. If you find a track you don't like you can skip it or say "never play this song" again, but you can't say "less like this". Before I started giving tracks the thumbs up or down, I wanted to see if I could get iTunes to offer something closer to what I was looking for.

Next I created a station based on a song: The Rolling Stones' (I can't get no) Satisfaction. It played that song first, followed by Creedence's Fortunate Son – exactly the same song it played second in my Rolling Stones station. I created another station based on The Rolling Stones' She's a Rainbow but instead got Tumbling Dice, followed by The Beatles' All You Need is Love. Those two songs clearly don't belong together, even if the bands were popular at the same time.

I asked for a station based on The Rolling Stone's cover of Little Red Rooster, to see if I could get a Blues feel, but instead I got Hot Stuff, a distinctly Funk song. Next up was The Doors' Love Her Madly followed by ELO's Showdown, Creedence's I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Eric Clapton's Lay Down Sally and The Beatles' Eight Days a Week. That's a pretty eclectic mix and none of them feel much like the bluesy Little Red Rooster. Love Her Madly was closest to a decent match.

Set the mood

Maybe I was going about this all wrong, so I went in search of a genre in iTunes Radio such as "60s Rock". No such genre is listed, so I had to settle for Classic Rock. First cab off the rank; Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. Great song but not as classic as I hoped for. I guess your definition of classic rock depends on how old you are. The Electric Blues genre was more to my liking with BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but even though I added The Rolling Stones as an artist I still hadn't heard Mick Jagger after a dozen tracks. Blues Rock is good but also a rather mixed affair.

It seemed the only way I was going to reliably get the personalised sound I wanted from iTunes Radio was to create a station based on several bands and then reject everything I didn't want to hear. I started with The Rolling Stones, BB King, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan – I guess hoping for a Blues Rock feel with taste of a Memphis Blues.

First up, Brown Sugar. Next, Creedence's Fortunate Son. It seems iTunes doesn't care what I choose, this song is a must. The next two hours of music was a mixed bag. Highlights included Cream, The Black Crowes, The Doors, George Thorogood, John Lee Hooker and Eric Clapton. But iTunes still managed to throw in The Beatles' Here Comes The Sun, Pearl Jam's Jeremy, Springsteen's Born to Run and Dire Straits' Money for Nothing. I like Pearl Jam, but how the hell did it get in this playlist?

I went back and selected "don't play this song" on a few tracks, but I kept getting an eclectic mix of music. I'm convinced iTunes simply lumps bands together, chooses popular songs and hopes for the best.

Over the next few days I added several more artists and rejected a few more songs (a verdict which only applies to the station you're listening to). With six artists and some culling of songs, I ended up with a station I was reasonably happy with but you never knew when something odd would pop up. Later I switched to a combination of Blues Rock and Electric Blues, but adding options seems to widen the choice of music rather than narrow it.

What about the competition?

As a comparison test I headed over to Pandora.com and created a station based on The Rolling Stones, using a fresh account so as not to let my previous listening habits influence the choice of songs. The result was much less hit-and-miss than iTunes Radio, before I gave anything the thumbs up or down. The first 10 tracks were:

Beast of Burden - The Rolling Stones
Mary Jane's Last Dance - Tom Petty
For What It's Worth - Buffalo Springfield
All Along The Watchtower - Jimi Hendrix
Jumping Jack Flash - The Rolling Stones
Running Down a Dream - Tom Petty
Tuesday's Gone - Lynyrd Skynyrd
Fortunate Son - Creedence Clearwater Revival
Here Comes the Sun - The Beatles
You Can't Always Get What You Want - The Rolling Stones

Individual tastes obviously vary, and I would have ditched Here Comes the Sun, but that list is closer to what I was expecting to hear when I said I liked The Rolling Stones. It also includes more songs from The Rolling Stones themselves. It still feels like it's a list based more on an era than a style of music.

You can also create Pandora stations based on specific songs. When I asked for The Rolling Stones' Little Red Rooster, Pandora knew it was a blues song and threw in songs from Blues greats Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, John Hammond, Jimmy Reed and Paul Butterfield. This seemed much more on the money than iTunes Radio's Little Red Rooster suggestions such as the Electric Light Orchestra.

iTunes Radio classifies Little Red Rooster as a Rolling Stones song, but it doesn't seem to classify it as a Blues song. If you're after a certain feel, starting with a specific song in Pandora seems more likely to deliver what you want than starting with the same song in iTunes Radio. If you're fussy then iTunes Radio will make you work harder to get the sound you want.

Much of the difference comes down to the fact that Pandora relies on the Music Genome Project to analyse songs and look for matching styles, whereas iTunes Radio relies more on people to curate the stations. iTunes Radio finds songs that go well together, not songs that feel the same. Apple can also examine your iTunes music library, purchasing history and Genius usage to get a feel for your musical tastes. I don't use iTunes Match and Genius, nor do I buy music from Apple, so for me iTunes Radio was working with one arm tied behind its back. But remember Pandora didn't have access to these either.

So what's the verdict?

If you're looking for the ultimate mixtape with a few surprises then you're going to enjoy iTunes Radio. But if you're looking for a custom playlist of songs with the same vibe then iTunes Radio is more hit and miss. iTunes Radio demands a lot more work than Pandora to create a station you're happy with. Your mileage may vary, but when testing iTunes Radio I kept coming back to Pandora because it requires much less prodding to play the songs I want to hear.

Have you used iTunes Radio, Pandora or another personalised music service? What did you think?

 

47 comments so far

  • Have been a long time Apple computer / device user but the idea of the iTunes radio doesn't appeal to me because it takes away my freedom of choice. Suddenly our tastes and song selections are being chosen by someone else again ( like the bad old days of "traditional' radio broadcasting ) and that's very limiting.

    Also - as shocking as this may sound - I am not always online, especially suffering from my mobile phone carriers poor coverage ( no names I am sure you know who and what I mean ).

    Commenter
    Jonas
    Date and time
    February 14, 2014, 9:38AM
    • Jonas, it's meant to be an alternative to traditional radio, but with a degree of customisation so that you are exposed to new music and offered other songs that you might like, dependent on your taste. The beauty of it is that if it doesn't appeal, you don't have to use it - you are free to listen to your pre-loaded music or iTunes purchases through the regular music player. It's not designed to control your music tastes.

      Commenter
      Mads
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 11:10AM
    • A little bit of freedom of choice is sometimes a good thing. One of the reasons I like Pandora. It exposes you to music you may never have heard of before. You just load it up and let it go (after selecting a type of music/playlist you want).

      Commenter
      Peter for PM
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 11:14AM
    • Did you actually read the article? You can create and customise your own stations. That's fairly flexible and give a lot of freedom to choose your favourite songs.

      Commenter
      Griffo
      Date and time
      February 15, 2014, 3:01AM
  • I-Tunes Radio.......Obama and his NSA just love it.
    "We'll stream ya something all right".......
    Even MORE PERFECT for Sheeple with absolutely N O I D E A.

    Commenter
    The Seer
    Date and time
    February 14, 2014, 9:38AM
    • Sounds like the tin foil hat might be on a little too tight.

      Commenter
      ij
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 1:00PM
    • Ij - great post man! Fits the fandroid demographic absolutely perfectly.

      Commenter
      Griffo
      Date and time
      February 15, 2014, 3:08AM
  • Adam - I went through all this about 10 years ago when I was listening to Pandora - the free version would from memory only let you skip past a certain number of tracks before it basically started ignoring you as if to say - Well, if you haven't paid for it you don't get that much choice ;)

    The issue then, as now it seems is in the quality of the metadata - the information that categorises and allows the comparison to be made between songs - how else can it know what song is stylistically like another.

    The old Audioscrobbler mind map type diagram used to be very good for showing how artists related to each other based on the listening habits of certified/registered listeners but that involved allowing the uploading of listening habits and I think when the content producers (record companies, publishers etc) went hard after the pirates it put people off sharing this kind of information which is a shame because it threw up some very good suggestions (from an artist point of view - not sure if it ever translated into a streaming station but it wouldn't have taken much to incorporate it if it wasn't).

    Incidentally - how classic is classic rock ? - how old ? how popular ? genre ? I would say Born to Run is almost the very definition of 'classic rock' but of course it's not from the 60s so does it count ? ;)

    Commenter
    Stevo
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 14, 2014, 9:54AM
    • I've used Pandora for a couple of years now and prefer both it's selection criteria (algorithm) and especially its quick access to additional info about artists so it covers more bases. I use it to find artists I haven't otherwise come across. At the moment it's a far better listening experience with more features.

      iTunes Radio seems to be initially basing its playlists on a version of the "listeners who bought x also bought y" that the iTunes Store uses and so comes across as a vehicle for selling more product which I guess is how they pitched it to the record labels. Maybe it needs to go through the Pandora process and get more data from listeners to fine tune selections and preferences. Still, as it stays only within the Apple ecosystem it may never be able to supply the additional info and links that Pandora does.

      Both limit the number of tracks you can skip - although Pandora tells you it's because of its music licences, Apple just says no. But both are still simply crowd-sourced music databases that ultimately benefit the vendor more than the listener who helps fine tune the software through likes/dislikes in return for free access.

      Commenter
      Hayden
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 10:07AM
      • When I installed iTunes radio I was excited. I selected the Classical station, and the Opera Station.
        Both are completely inadequate. the classical station played opera as well as classical and the opera station played instrumental classics as well as vocal opera pieces. Repeats were the order of the day, hearing the love duet from a particular opera three times in the space of an hour is not my idea of fun. It seemed to ignore my requests to play more like this or never play this again. Disappointed would be the word.

        Commenter
        sniffer dog
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        February 14, 2014, 10:13AM

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