Saturday, February 21, 2009

My Radio Held My Data Hostage In Its Deathroes

I actually used to pay for a Yahoo! service: Launchcast Radio. Launchcast was a web radio service that got bought by Yahoo! and just kept alive for years. The player would only work on Internet Explorer and only on Windows, which means I couldn't use it at work for most of 2006 and 2007 because I was on a Mac there. Still, it was rock-solid, no drops, and the music was easily rateable, but with a lot of flexibility. For every track one could rate the artist, album, and song independently, which was very useful if you only liked a particular era of an artist's output, or just a one-hit-wonder track, or wanted to kill the novelty album from the music stream. You could listen to pre-programmed stations or make your own based on your ratings, which would then also play new music based on the information. If you upgraded to Plus you'd be free of commercials and get really nice quality of stream, just a touch worse than CD quality to my ears.

But in the new regulatory web radio environment and Yahoo's tanking numbers, I guess it had to go, so as of last weekend it got sold off and is now 'powered by CBS' and that copies the model of AOL radio: preset genres, preset stations, no customization, no ad-free stations. What the web could uniquely give, personalization for no or low payments, narrowcasting, is now gone, and replaced by something that, well, satellite radio does better. Hell yes, I am disappointed.

So, off to the competitors. The big one is Pandora, which also allows you to make a custom station based on your own personal tastes and ratings, and is known for very good predictive technologies. Unfortunately, it is also restricted to the US only, so that is no use for me in the UK. works in the UK, and allows you to rate songs, get recommendations based on the ratings, and find out what people with tastes like you (your Neighborhood) are listening to. It started as AudioScrobbler, a social music site where you could show off what you were listening to by using little plugins to put in your WinAmp or iTunes, and has slowly morphed into a social site with web radio and custom channels now that bands make their own pages and upload music. It now wants to also start charging for a premium service where you can skip and play the same song more than 3 times. However, with its wildly varying sound-levels and the way it keeps recommending one tiny genre for me, over and over even though I have scrobbled for years over my whole library, the service is totally frustrating me.

And I could rate and fine tune some more, but still. I invested a lot of time rating my music on Launchcast already, clicking that little star bar whenever a new song came on. Now all that time is just wasted, gone. Yahoo stored my ratings and there was nothing useful to do with them outside of Yahoo. Obviously Launchcast wasn't a huge crowd pleaser or it wouldn't have been shut down, but I wasn't the only one wondering why all my data was now a) in a silo b) useless. If something happens to Pandora, or, or Spotify (the new Euro kid on the block I can't try because it is an invite-only beta) or Rhapsody or Napster -- none of them huge blockbusters and all of them in a difficult global regulatory environment -- do we then need to start rating somewhere else all over again to get our custom radio?

I know I am in a minority here but I have rated almost every song in my iTunes library. When one day my directory died I panicked not because I might have lost my music -- I can re-rip that, and at a higher bitrate this time, and pirate what I had bought as music files -- but my ratings, my god, my ratings were gone! Nobody can do that for me but me! Everything turned out ok, but again, here's my data, it represents a lot about me, and it is caught in one location for one narrow use.

Can I export these ratings to each other? Not really, although I did write a terrible tool quickly to scrape my Yahoo Launchcast ratings through a forgotten Yahoo API, but I can't upload it to anything. Well, I could write a tool to upload it to (against their terms of service, because you can only rate something you are actually listening to at that moment, and for 9000 songs, well, that would take around 18.000 minutes of uploading) but they are pretty locked there. And on Pandora. And why neither one lets you upload your ratings files from local music players to quickly customize your radio or taste circle. Which seems like such an obvious idea, you are going to make me go through song after song on your service and click little hearts while you could make me happy with one file upload from my personal harddrive? There aren't that many audio players in use, you know. Even if the user hasn't rated their songs in iTunes or Media Player, the play-counts alone tell you so much about the tastes of that music lover trying your music site.

We need a Switzerland for music ratings. A place where I can rate songs once, and that does its best to scrape them from all your radio stations or places that you identify you rate songs at. In this age of interconnection I should never have to rate a song more than once anywhere, and my data should not die when the service goes. Competitor radios, especially sites that want to be social and taste hubs, places to show yourself off, should know better than that.

Breaking: then again, that music ratings Switzerland could totally end up selling you out to the RIAA like seems to have done over a U2 tracks leak.