MusicStrands: playlist sharing and music discovery

Last week MusicStrands launched a major upgrade that extends its scope by adding new ways to tag, discuss, and discover music — see the overview of the new features. This is moving in the direction of the MySpace music community — technically I think it’s a step ahead of MySpace, but clearly lacks the latter’s current buzz — so in some ways it’s unfair to concentrate just on its playlist sharing features. But that is what I’m going to do here, as I didn’t include MusicStrands in my previous reviews of playlist services.

To try out the new MusicStrands, I first created a new Philip Jeays ‘imaginary celebrity playlist’ (see more about this genre and more about Jeays), then I repeated my Neil Young playlist, to provide a direct comparison with creating the same playlist on other services. More about the details of these below, but first an overview of MusicStrands playlists, using my standard criteria.

Table: Review of MusicStrands playlist sharing service
Name: MusicStrands (beta)
Audio You specify your platform and preferred players and you can hear 30-second samples of some of the tracks (launched directly from the playlist), using, say, RealPlayer or Windows Media Player.
Community There is a facility to rate playlists (I’m sure I saw it once, though I can’t find it now!). You cannot leave comments on others’ playlists, but MusicStrands offers you a button so you can post to your ‘journal’ (MusicStrands blog) about any playlist you feel moved to write about. There are groups/forums, though at the time of writing these are in early stages of development (mostly with less than ten members, and no messages). Users can use tags for tracks, artists, playlists etc to organise and filter them.
Usability Playlist creation is done by searching for artists and tracks. I often found I had to use the ‘Advanced Search’ feature to get to the track I wanted more quickly. It would also help if MusicStrands could reduce the number of clicks required to refine searches — for example, if I search for ‘Tom Waits’ and there is only one Tom Waits in the database, take me direct to the Tom Waits page, don’t tell me there is one matching result for Tom Waits and require me to click on it. Changing the sequence of playlist is straightforward, though not quick if you want to change it significantly. Playlists can be imported from iTunes. I frequently found it difficult to determine how best to navigate to the part of the site I wanted to reach.
Portability All playlists have an RSS feed for export. Playlists can be imported from iTunes.
Special features & selling points Like Soundflavor and, MusicStrands provides a music discovery service by offering recommendations based on what you put in your playlists (see more on this below). There are links to Amazon (the US store only, as far as I could tell) and, I think to iTunes, though I did not see this. Independent artists can add their material directly to the catalogue (again, more on this below).

I would have liked to have included some Philip Jeays tracks in the Faust’s a Singer playlist, but none are included in the MusicStrands database. To be fair I couldn’t find them in the databases of other playlist services either, though All Music Guide has a partial discography. What was more shocking was that I couldn’t find anything by Jake Thakray either, Thackray being a more long-established artist, and inspiration for Jeays.

I posted about this issue in my MusicStrands journal, and MusicStrands maestro Byron Prong has posted in the MusicStrands forum about possible solutions. In particular, he draws attention to MusicStrands Indy, a mechanism for independent artists to promote themselves to and via the MusicStrands communities — very much as MySpace has done.

I had an uncanny experience when putting my Neil Young playlist onto MusicStrands. If you’ve read my previous reviews of playlist services, you’ll have got bored of this playlist, which I’ve set up on Art of the Mix, Mixmatcher, and FIQL and GoFish as well as others.

After I had entered half of the eighteen tracks onto MusicStrands, I suddenly noticed that the tracks MusicStrands was recommending to me (based on the initial nine selections) included seven tracks that were on the second half my playlist. Not just tracks by the same artists, but the exact same tracks. That kind of mind reading cannot be passed off as a coincidence. (By comparison I thought the recommendations for the Jeays playlist were poor.)

I searched MusicStrands to see if another user had copied my playlist onto MusicStrands, but it’s not there. So the only possible explanation would seem to be that one of the other playlist services has licensed part or all of its playlist database to MusicStrands to drive the latter’s recommendations. Hmmmm.

I’m not going to say that this constitutes an infringement of privacy or anything — there is no evidence that the data that was passed was linked to my identity in any way. I don’t have a problem with services like Audioscrobbler making aggregate data available based on my (and others’) listening preferences, but at least they are up front about it.

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