Apps for Finding New Tunes, with a Little Help from Your Friends
I’ve been stuck in a music rut for a long time, listening to the same bands and songs over and over without adding many newcomers to the mix. It’s not that I don’t want new tunes; I’m just bad at discovering them.
With such a lack of auditory excitement in my life, I was excited to try out Twitter’s foray into music discovery, Twitter #music, which launched as an iPhone app and online service earlier this month. In order to make it a true test, I compared it with two other recently released social music apps—EQuala and Piki—to determine the best new source for finding music on a smartphone.
How do they rank? I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but let’s just say that Twitter’s social networking prowess doesn’t necessarily translate to social music recommendations.
Availability: online, iPhone.
Price: free, but you must have a premium subscription to Spotify or Rdio ($10 per month) to listen to full-length songs.
Twitter #music sounds like a great idea: it mines activity on the social network to determine popular songs and musicians, to recommend new artists it thinks you’ll like, and show you the artists that musicians and your friends are following.
And there are some very nice features, especially when it comes to Twitter #music’s design. The iPhone app is beautiful, with artists shown as small squares within a scrollable grid. Tap one of them and it expands to show more information and a “play” button, while the other squares reformat themselves around it. The app’s music player includes a sleek take on the visual of a spinning record, with the artist’s album art rotating above a volume slider that also pulses to the beat.
However, Twitter #music is more about finding new artists to check out elsewhere than actually listening to new songs. You can only hear one song from each listed artist, and you have to have a $10-per-month premium Spotify or Rdio account to do even that (otherwise you’ll just hear a sample from Apple’s iTunes store, and will be punted over to iTunes if you want to buy the song). You can tweet songs to your Twitter followers, but if you’re not a premium user it will just be a link to a clip of that song on iTunes.
Another problem I noticed early on is that many of my friends don’t follow many musicians on Twitter, nor do they tweet many tracks they listen to (not yet, at least). And many of the artists trending on Twitter #music don’t follow that many other artists, either. This made the discovery process feel stilted and more time-consuming than I expected.
Still, I got a few decent suggestions for new artists I might like from the “Suggested” chart, such as Ellie Goulding and Smith Westerns. Some new ideas were pretty far off, though, like Coldplay and Katy Perry.
As more users get into it, Twitter #music will probably improve. For now, though, it’s decent but not as great as the company’s flagship short-messaging service.
Availability: iPhone, Android.
EQuala taps into music shared on Facebook via services like Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, and many more services; once you connect it to your Facebook account, it can mine your feed for songs that your friends have listened to.
You can add friends within EQuala from your Facebook friends (it doesn’t matter if they use EQuala or not), and others who are using the app. EQuala then smartly determines your “music DNA”—a measure of your musical taste made up of your listening habits—and lets you know how close, percentage-wise, your friends’ tastes are to your own.
This app’s best feature is its Friends Equalizer, which is a sort of graphic equalizer consisting of up to 15 of your friends that you can adjust to determine the influence each friend has on the music you hear.
Once you hit play, EQuala streams tunes radio style, stopping occasionally for an audio ad. Like Pandora and many other Internet radio services, there is a song-skipping limit (you can skip up to six songs per hour).
I got an earful of new (to me) artists like Bruno Mars, Regina Spektor, courtesy of my Facebook friends and new people I followed through EQuala. I also heard artists like Neko Case and My Bloody Valentine for the first time in a while, reminding me to put them back in regular rotation.
EQuala isn’t meant for listening to songs you already know you like: you can search for specific tracks, but you only get to hear a sample. If you share a track you really like by “shouting” it to your friends, however, it can pop up in their EQuala radio streams.
Availability: iPhone, Android coming soon.
Made by the folks behind Turntable.fm, a service that lets you act as DJ and listen to tunes in real time with your friends, Piki lets you hear what your friends are listening to, and pick songs you think they should hear, too.
Once you’ve signed up for Piki, you can “pick” songs by letting the app’s microphone listen to what’s playing around you, by searching the iTunes library on your iPhone, or by searching for songs or artists. The tunes you pick will be shared with your friends on Piki (you get friends by adding Piki-using strangers and by searching your contacts or connecting your Facebook, Twitter, or Turntable accounts), as will any songs you “repick” from other users. I was happy to see that Piki let me choose some artists and songs I’ve had trouble finding on other music services that I wanted to share with friends, like Jack Peñate’s “Pull My Heart Away” and Mister Heavenly’s “Diddy Eyes.”
Like EQuala, Piki also lets you decide how much you want individual friends to influence your music stream by raising or lowering that person’s “play frequency,” though this seems like a smaller feature since it’s integrated with each friend’s profile page. I liked that I could also adjust my music stream, telling Piki to play songs from people who like certain bands or any of a dizzying array of musical genres. Like EQuala, Piki users get a reasonable six song skips per hour (you get more, apparently, when you retune your stream).
Though I don’t know many people using Piki, I added “friends” on the site from existing users who have similar tastes to me. I was pleasantly surprised by the songs that resulted, many of which were by artists I had never heard before, like Electric Guest and Saint Motel.
Only three people I’m connected to are using it, only one of whom I really know: my older brother. While he’s a big music buff with wide-ranging tastes, that isn’t enough to keep me coming back (sorry, Adam!). Unless a lot of my friends start using it, I don’t think I’ll be picking Piki any time soon.
EQuala wins as my all-around favorite. It’s not the best-looking app, but its focus on figuring out what kind of music I like and how that relates to my friends’ musical tastes makes it the best for finding new music and rediscovering artists I had forgotten about.
Despite the ability to find good music from strangers, the fact that few people I actually know use Piki stands out as its biggest flaw, and will likely to hamper its growth.
Twitter #music, meanwhile, has big potential but needs some work. It can start by showing more tracks from each artist and figuring out how to let users who are not premium Spotify or Rdio subscribers listen to and share some full-length songs.
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