06 March 2008, It was getting late
At MLA I gave a short presentation about Last.fm, explaining the differences between it and Pandora and why music librarians ought to be interested in it. We talked a little bit about the whole taxonomy vs. folksonomy thing, and why music people shouldn't discount Last.fm radio just because "similarity" is judged not by musical stylistic characteristics but by "people who listen to X also listen to Y".
Today I was messing around with the two, and I've decided that one way that Last.fm might actually do a better job of playing like music, stylistically speaking, is by genre. So, I wanted to listen to Hawaiian music. If you want to try to build a genre station using Pandora, you have to simply add artists that make sense given what you want, and then listen to it for a while, thumbing songs up or down depending on whether it sounds Hawaiian or not. Pandora wasn't very good at this, and one reason appeared to be that the kinds of things that make Hawaiian music Hawaiian weren't really counted as "stylistic" characteristics (for example, use of slack key guitar). As such, my attempt at adding a bunch of slack-key guitar artists to a station resulted in tracks being chosen because they had, for example, "folk influences, great musicianship, acoustic sonority, demanding instrumental part writing and major key tonality." Obviously a lot of music that is not Hawaiian will fit that bill.
On the other hand, I thought, Last.fm gives you the option of playing tag radio, that is, a radio station put together of tracks, artists, and albums that have been tagged a certain way. So, I tried the "Hawaiian" tag radio, with far greater success. While the music definitely didn't always match stylistically, all of it was definitely Hawaiian, with no exceptions. I got, for example, ska and reggae, hip hop, Britney-esque, and ambient psychedelic techno sort of stuff, but all with a Hawaiian flair--along with a good deal of traditional Hawaiian slack-key guitar, hula music, and Don Ho.
Techcrunch has more on Last.fm and Pandora. Note that Pandora has attempted to create special genre stations--probably because of this very problem.