Slacker

Slacker partners with Time Warner Cable

Thursday, November 14, 2013 - 1:10pm

Music service Slacker today announced a partnership with Time Warner Cable in which Slacker will be bundled into TWC subscriptions, presumably both via TV and Internet screens.

Slacker pursues a vigorous distribution strategy, pairing with media networks (ABC, ESPN), telecom companies (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile), and major car companies.

The TWC Slacker outlet is supposedly on the Time Warner Cable Central site (www.twcc.com and twcc.slacker.com), but testing this afternoon, immediately after the announcement, resulted in an experience less satisfying than the government health care site -- endless blank page loads.

Request for comment was not immediately answered. Stay tuned for updates.

iHeart Radio updates app features, including concierge-style programming

Sunday, November 3, 2013 - 11:35am

We noticed that iHeartRadio put an updated version of its Android app in the Google Play, and were glad to see it brought the Android experience to parity with the Apple app. Trying it out, we see two notable additions.

Unadvertised in the app stores, but added in both the Android and iOS apps, is the “Perfect for” section, which adopts concierge-style programming currently in vogue. Pioneered by Songza’s “life moments” organization of playlists, and later more-or-less copied by Slacker, concierge-style presentation makes it easy for the listener to lean forward briefly, identify a mood, activity, or time of day, then lean back for the curated music experience.

Clearly, iHeart programmers had the RAIN editorial office in mind when packaging this section, as the first choice is Drinking Coffee. Drilling into that selection amusingly yields layers of musical caffeination: Shot of Caffeine, Extra Sugar, Third Cup Jitters, and Espresso Energy. Each is a package of stations. The selections feature a mix of live stations and curated playlists. (One of the streams is co-branded with Dunkin Donuts.) Other “Perfect for” categories are likewise expanded with a tongue-in-cheek wink (e.g. Downward Dog Days in the Yoga group).

iHeart is bragging about another new usability feature: a big plus sign (+) that offers one-touch addition of any programming element onto your Favorites page. That’s good, but not prevalent enough. In our testing, we saw the plus sign only on the Now Playing screen. We found that limitation frustrating when combing through the service adding stations; many times we wanted to fling a station into Favorites for later, without having to boot it up first. Especially when listening to one of the Espresso Energy stations.

Songza updates iOS 7 app

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 9:15am

The release of Apple’s iOS 7 mobile operating system, with its dramatic design changes, has generated an influx of app re-releases of a new “iOS 7 update” category. In other words, little or no functional changes, but the app is prettied up to make the most of iOS 7 translucencies and other cosmetic loveliness.

Such is Songza’s upgrade, which landed in the Apple app store this week. Songza’s Concierge service (mood/activity “life moments” listening) remains unchanged, as do its finely curated genre stations. The only discernible change to our eyes is the Now Playing screen, in which the share buttons are more obvious (good for Songza brand extension) and more easily accessed (good for users who love sharing). The design is quite beautiful on an iPhone, not so striking in the iPad app.

In the iOS 7-upgrade race, Songza has now caught up with Slacker -- worth mentioning because the two seem locked in an orbital dance. Slacker recently copied Songza’s day/mood/activity listening model with the My Vibe section of its app, which it launched with iOS 7 beautification. That maneuver definitely comprised an eat-your-lunch aggression toward Songza. (See RAIN coverage here.) In our humble opinion, Slacker still looks better, and has more streamlined navigation.

For listeners, though, the main test is quality of music. All these mobile platform apps have the same essential design elements. Does the playlist work for you? That’s what counts.

Slacker partners with Univision in expansion of Latin programming

Friday, October 18, 2013 - 10:25am

Univision Radio is the leading audio network for Hispanic America, and music service Slacker announced today a partnership that will bring some of that content to the online listening platform.

The expanded lineup plan includes five terrestrial stations based in Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Miami, and Houston. Slacker will also introduce Univision America, a “Slacker-hosted and expert-curated channel featuring a mix of highly-coveted talk content.” Univision America will be exclusive to Slacker Radio. Some or all of the live stations included in this partnership can also be found on TuneIn, but without the easy-to-find packaging that could draw Hispanic listeners into Slacker.

RAIN’s update of Slacker’s Android and iOS apps showed only Univision America available in Android, and all six channels in the Apple version. A new Univision menu item appears in both apps.

The exclusive Univision America channel is an important differentiator for Slacker, though cross-channel branding is confusing. iHeartRadio hosts a version of Univision America, with identical trademarking. Comparing simultaneous streams reveals different programming, but Slacker’s ownership of a unique show is not evident in the first version of Univision America in its mobile apps.

Rhapsody launches new radio features, contributes to conformity

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - 7:10am

Rhapsody, one of the oldest listening platforms, a subscription-only pureplay, and lately a beleaguered business wracked with internal changes, has brought new features to its Radio product. “Radio” in this context means playlists. Until now, Rhapsody has offered a suite of house-curated genre stations, but no artist-seeded or song-seeded stations in the Spotify and Pandora style.

Customized radio is increasingly desired by users who like to lean in a bit, by choosing a band or single track, then lean back and enjoy a stream of songs related to the band or track. Selections are refined by whatever the service knows about the user’s taste. That interactive model usually includes thumbs-up and thumbs-down arrows, the ability to skip forward, and an option to add any track to a collection of favorites.

It’s a good model, satisfying to use, accommodating of different listening postures, and conducive to music discovery. Rhapsody is late to the game, inasmuch as Pandora, iTunes Radio, Spotify, Rdio, and Google All Access feature the same “radio”-style feature set. This week’s enhancement comes one year after Rhapsody partnered with The Echo Nest, a leading provider of music recommendation technology to listening platforms.

Rhapsody’s new product includes a feature increasingly seen in “radio” setting: a Variety slider that determines how far afield the artist station is allowed to venture from the artist characteristics. iTunes Radio has something similar. It is a calibrating feature that reflects how adventurous the user is feeling.

In our listening tests of Rhapsody’s new Radio, using an account with extensive Rhapsody history, throwing the slider to the far right (more variety) widened the scope of listening noticeably, but not radically. In a blues-rock station fashioned after Eric Gales, the greatest variety setting brought in a harder rock edge. One terrific aspect of the Variety slider is the list of five upcoming tracks. You can jump ahead to any one of them. Moving the slider refreshes the list in real time, giving you an idea of what’s in store at any variety level.

While Rhapsody's new package is a valuable service enhancement, there is a depressing degree of conformity solidifying in this space like drying cement. Artist-based, dynamically created, radio-style playlists all seem to operate in the same way, distinguished only by small usability details. Product development is lacking innovation. Rdio recently launched its “Stations” utility, achieving product parity with Spotify. Slacker introduced “My Vibe” stations, nearly cloning Songza’s “Life Moment” listening scheme. iTunes Radio launched in an overt imitation of Pandora’s successful Internet radio model.

Everybody is reaching parity with everyone else. User choice is based on either interface design, music selection quality, or habit. Pandora is one service with a unique back end, the result of years of R&D into the characteristics of music and the signifiers of music taste. In all cases, including Pandora, quality of music selection is improved by sticking with one system and building up a history of liking, skipping, and saving tracks. In a field marked by elusive profitability, the homogeneity of interactive listening sets the stage for future consolidation.

For now, the venerable Rhapsody, which started in 2000, has joined the pack with a standard feature set for artist-based stations -- it is well implemented for the most part, and sounds good.

Slacker's new "My Vibe" steps into concierge-style programming

Friday, September 27, 2013 - 12:45pm

Creative curation is Internet radio’s latest programming vogue. Songza, for which “life moment” playlists are the cornerstone of the service’s “Concierge” programming strategy, emblemizes the approach of serving the user in action, furnishing a music stream that matches daypart, activity, and mood. This tactic, more than simple genre or decade playlists, seeks to make the service exquisitely responsive to the listener’s transient state of mind. Songza attempts to soundtrack the changeable here-and-now.

It is an appealing service paradigm, one that can be optimized by granular song tagging on the back end, refined by user customization actions (likes, skips, shares) on the front end. Slacker, a competing platform which has long specialized in creative in-house playlists, recently co-opted Songza’s playbook and established a new aspect of its listening app. Called “My Vibe,” Slacker’s day/do/mood associations are clearly modeled on Songza’s leadership. Slacker introduced the mobile version with an iOS app specifically designed around iOS 7 (it is gorgeous), and its new Android experience dropped into Google Play yesterday (it is serviceably attractive).

If you choose the “My Vibe” path through Slacker’s new apps, you are presented with a greeting which calls out the current daypart ("Pick some music for a Friday afternoon") and requests a couple of choices -- just as Songza does. If there is a key differentiator in Slacker’s favor, it is how the interface is packaged on a smartphone screen. The user makes two choices on one screen to get the music started. On Songza, the user is pulled through three decisions on three screens. A tiny detail? Yes, but convenience resides in details, and the lean-back listening market seeks the best, most personalized music with the least effort. On this point, it’s a win for Slacker.

The two services also differ in how user choices are described. Songza requires more knowledge of music sub-genres -- a nice hook for people who do understand, for example, psybient electronica. Slacker, in contrast, uses evocative station titles like Yoga Flow -- attractive to listeners who catalog music by its effect rather than genre designation.

If Slacker’s My Vibe stations seem familiar to its users, there is a reason: the stations are existing Slacker playlists repurposed for the My Vibe environment. The new interface appears to be accomplished through tagging of existing assets (“Handcrafted stations”) to the day/activity layout (“Music for every moment”). If that is comprehensively true, Slacker has leaped into Songza’s space without any additional handcrafting.

It will be interesting to see whether other platforms bite into the music-for-now space, and -- futuristically -- how this programming tactic might be extended by new mobile technology. Imagine a smart watch which feeds you workout music when it discerns that you are exercising, or lullabies when you are in bed. Or consider Google Glass, which wouldn’t need to ask what you’re doing -- it can see for itself. My Vibe? Or, My Every Move Tracked By Technology?

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