Slacker broadens online listening options for music fans

John
John Gushue
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A couple of weeks ago, I bought a stereo receiver from my friend, Heather, as well as some miscellaneous other components. My own receiver - which I bought in 1981 if memory serves - had literally been collecting dust in my living room. It worked, but very badly, and listening to anything was, frankly, painful.

That's why I haven't been playing much music in my living room for a while. By coincidence, the digital revolution in music hit full stride when my stereo was calling it quits. I had been downloading music (largely legally, but I'll cop to some grey areas) for years, but legal, safe and inexpensive downloads, thanks to iTunes and its rivals, settled in for good over the last few years.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a stereo receiver from my friend, Heather, as well as some miscellaneous other components. My own receiver - which I bought in 1981 if memory serves - had literally been collecting dust in my living room. It worked, but very badly, and listening to anything was, frankly, painful.

That's why I haven't been playing much music in my living room for a while. By coincidence, the digital revolution in music hit full stride when my stereo was calling it quits. I had been downloading music (largely legally, but I'll cop to some grey areas) for years, but legal, safe and inexpensive downloads, thanks to iTunes and its rivals, settled in for good over the last few years.

I hadn't even been aware of how digital my music collection had been. I poured most of my music into my computer, and regularly update my iPod, which I tote around most of the time. For leisure time at home, I plug my iPod into a docking station that pumps out sound far better than what my feeble receiver could manage.

My computer, indeed, has become the place where I'm most likely to hear a song these days. I put together my own playlists, but that takes time and thinking, and when I'm busy working, I find it easier to get someone else to stream music to me. It's also a great way to learn about new tunes I might not otherwise hear.

I use the online service Pandora (http://www.pandora.com) a fair bit, and its rival LastFM (http://www.last.fm/) less so. I sample MP3s from a variety of blogs (there's that grey area I mentioned before), and I subscribe to a bunch of services that send new tunes out by podcast.

So, when a friend enthusiastically tipped me to yet another new streaming service - this one called Slacker - I didn't get too excited off the bat.

Which is a pity, because Slacker has been keeping my office well supplied with good music for the last few days.

Slacker

http://www.slacker.com/

Slacker differs from a market leader like Pandora because it pours out designated stream of stations. Pandora, as users will know, customizes itself to your taste; tell it you like Billie Holiday, for instance, and it will next serve up Ella Fitzgerald. You tell Pandora whether you like or don't like its suggestions, and as time goes by, you end up with a "station" tailored to you.

Slacker offers a customizing function, but much of what's on offer is within the structure of a host of genre-oriented feeds. They're pretty wide-ranging, actually; there are 13 separate rock feeds, and that doesn't include genres like pop, alternative and indie (there's even one called "indie hits"). There are also feeds (but with less variety in subgenres) for fans of jazz, folk, country and so on. There's nothing for classical devotees at this point, however.

The service does have some interactivity to it. Tell Slacker you like a tune, and it'll remember to play it again for you sometime (within an hour, in one case, for me - which was a bit earlier than expected).

You can also fine-tune things, somewhat, by selecting what Slacker calls an "artist station," consisting of songs by that performer and others of that vein. On the Bob Dylan station, for instance, Slacker suggests getting songs from acolytes like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Forbert.

A similarity with Pandora: there's a limit on how many songs you can skip over in an hour. This is easily Pandora's biggest weakness, particularly because it does have a habit of reaching for some obscure selections.

Slacker limits you to six skips per hour - but that's also only per station.

Which means you can hop around the various feeds when you exhaust your options in one feed.

This feature - which is kind of like running up and down the dial on your car radio - pretty much explains why Slacker ran all day while I was puttering about my house.

Expect more variety in the future. Slacker (which requires free registration, if you want to tinker with your choices) intends to have more than 100 specialized feeds at some point.

My new stereo, meanwhile, is installed, and it sounds great.

And, I have to say, it almost feels kind of retro to be playing music from CDs again.

How quickly things can change.

John Gushue is a news writer for CBC.ca in St. John's. E-mail: surf@thetelegram.com. Read past Surf's Up columns and daily updates at his blog: http://johngushue.typepad.com.

Organizations: LastFM

Geographic location: St. John's

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