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Music : Last.fm

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I listen to a LOT of music.   Typically 10 hours in a day.    I listen whenever I am coding, in my car running around town, and especially when on long road trips.    In the past I had been happy streaming just about anything and everything to my home system, PC, or mobile apps.  These days, however, the dynamic is different.    These days, especially during the summer, I have my 6-year-old son running around the house.   He also likes listening to music and often cranks up the Sonos living room speakers when I’m jamming to something.     That brings a whole new dynamic to the experience.

About 99.8% of songs today apparently have a different definition of what explicit lyrics are.   Maybe it is just me and my old age, but anything that drops the words f@ck,sh!t, n!gger, b!itch, or @ss are  a definite  candidate for the explicit list when my son is around.   As are some other words that I can see not being considered explicit but definitely not kid friendly.   Then there are the topical issues which often are accompanied by explicit lyrics.    It is funny to hear a radio edit of  a Lil’ Wayne song.    It is nothing more than a beat with a bunch of half-pronounced words and a synthesized fades on every-other syllable.

The issue, as I’ve been learning over the past few months, is that there is NOT A SINGLE GOOD ONLINE SERVICE FOR KID FRIENDLY MUSIC!

I started with Pandora.  After 5 years of listening I had rated over 4,000 songs and built FOUR kid friendly stations that had MOSTLY filtered out the questionable content.   Then they started having issues.   For no reason whatsoever they suddenly started having technical problems.   Songs would stop halfway through, or hang, or come out garbled.   After spending 2 months with the completely useless customer service folks whose ONLY answer is “reboot the computer”, I moved on.    Sadly they could not comprehend it was a service issue which is why the reboots and reloads never worked.   As I told them, which was clearly not on their script in the Mexico City call center, the same exact issues manifested themselves on two different computers, my tablet, my cell phone, the TiVo, the Internet-ready TV, and the RoKu box (yeah, I’m an uber tech junkie).    Besides not having a great explicit lyrics filter for my needs, they also would often “run off the reservation” and suddenly play something like a blue grass stomp in the middle of a pop station.  That sucked.

Then came Slacker.  They have the absolute worst explicit filter going.

When I got the Sonos setup I started exploring new services and re-exploring old.    Many have NO WAY to filter explicit content.  Others have a favorite song marker, but no “ban song” marker.  Combined with streaming explicit lyrics it was a non-starter given the insatiable appetite of today’s musicians to randomly drop a completely unnecessary f-bomb or beeeyaaacchhh into the middle of  as song.

The, last night, late at night while hacking SLP4 code, I randomly chose another service on the Sonos system that I had purposefully ignored.    Last.FM.     I am familiar with the service having used it on-and-off, mostly off, for years.   I even started and still have a custom FM station running from an old account.   They even send me a few pennies every month for the service But last night I revisited purely as a music listener looking for a good home.     I may have found it.

While the interface is much better than it used to be, having clearly been developed by code geeks with no design experience what-so-ever (like myself), it was far behind the norm even 5 years ago.     Today it is better, finally catching up with user interface design from 5 years ago, but we are 5 years in the future.    At least the interface is usable, if not very pretty.

However the BIG thing with online streaming is content.    Here, Last.FM is ahead of the curve IMO.    Maybe I haven’t listened enough but in 8 hours of listening last night I did not hear a single repeat even after staying on one “station” for hours.    No other music service, other than the “playlist cycling” services can do this.   Pandora is a big “repeats offender”.  Slacker is worse.   Last.FM, at least so far, keeps the music fresh and does not seem to center around the “choice 200” for each genre.    Nice.

Then there is the content and explicit filters issue.  I was concerned at first because I cannot find any way to ban explicit lyrics in the 27 different setup and profile settings screens.    I easily could have missed it, but I don’t think they have one.    What I did find, however, is that at least 80% of the time the songs that did stream were the proper radio edit versions.    Not Slacker’s lame excuses of why they stream explicit lyrics when you have the “do not stream explicit lyrics” setting enabled.   Slacker claims “the record company did not mark the song properly” or “it is a radio edit they sang SHIP , you are hearing things” (which I am certainly not).     So here, even without an explicit filter, Last.FM does pretty darn good.  At least as good as Pandora and Slacker with the percentage of songs that come out of my speakers and drop and F-bomb on the living room floor right in front of my son.

However the thing that really has my attention with Last.FM at the moment is the ability to self-tag any song that streams.   You can ban and favorite any song, but the tagging is HUGE.   I’m not aware of any other curated service that allows you to self-tag songs and then build radio stations based heavily (exclusively) on those tags.    Just gather 45 songs from any of the stations with a tag like “nicsafe” and you can start a new station.   SWEEEET.       I’ll see how that works over the course of the next week but this could be the perfect way to create several truly safe stations for my son to listen to that I actually enjoy.

Another thing Last.FM got right that all the other services could emulate is the new user process.    They walk you through a few steps, that you can easily skip, that will help create a better starting experience for a new user.     To “seed” the stations and start playing music you like they start with a “select your artists” section.  It is one of the best, actually it is THE BEST, method of doing this that I have seen yet.  The display an array of 16 tiles with an artists photo & name on the screen.   As you click on those you like they are immediately replaced with a new artist in that slot.   All 16 are “lame”?   Click the reload more artists button and a new array of 16 appear.    I quickly loaded up 51 different artists before I tired of the setup.    It was fun, but 5 minutes into it  I decided I had enough to get started and moved on.   Turns out that was a great move as I immediately started with the “artists I like” station and listened for over an hour to mostly songs I truly enjoy and some I’ve not heard in years.

Thus far the Last.FM experience has been great.  It is SIGNIFICANTLY improved from my last experience with them just 18 months ago.

If you’ve not been to Last.FM lately, I encourage you to check it out.   It won’t be for everyone, but it certainly has moved way up the competition ladder and can compete with the “big boys”  including my current favorites of Pandora, Slacker, and Spotify.

Rock on Last.FM, rock on!