There are advantages to living with record nerds, among them constant exposure to new music and relaxed attitudes toward mutually beneficial piracy. Then there are the disadvantages, like the constant arguments over turntable use, who has neglected to put records back in their sleeves, whether Faces are better than Small Faces, etc. Luckily, custom radio Web sites like Last.fm and Pandora.com allow one to explore new music without the inconveniences of cohabitation or, for that matter, friendship. Both sites use your personal listening habits to determine which other bands would suit your tastes, generating a radio station of music recommended specifically for you.
Last.fm and Pandora (both free, with options for paid upgrades) are best used in tandem, as both have flaws related to their respective methods. The former is the more comprehensive, community-oriented of the two, using data uploaded from hundreds of thousands of users' iTunes to determine its playlists. Once the site has created a profile of your listening habits, you are matched with "neighbors" users with similar tastes and the playlists of your custom radio stations are informed by what artists fans of your favorites listen to most often. There are a number of station options: a custom personal station based on your taste; neighbor radio surveying what similar users are playing; similar artist radio based on a single artist; and "tag radio," based on which artists users have labeled as belonging to a certain genre, locale, or mood. The stations are often dead-on in characterizing your tastes, with the glaring exception being the cases of more popular or especially prolific artists. Johnny Cash, for example, to whom almost 100,000 users have listened, is perplexingly pinpointed as being most similar to the Pixies and the Beastie Boys. This results in similar artist radio for Cash resembling something of a general Top 40 instead of a country sampling. Prolific artists, such as Will Oldham, present an entirely different problem. Oldham has recorded under more than half a dozen names (Palace, Palace Music, Palace Songs, Palace Brothers, etc.), and so the top five artists listed as most similar to him are, in fact, all him.
Pandora's methods are less complex and often more accurate than Last.fm. The site does not track your iTunes and only offers similar artist radio. All decisions as to taste come from actual human beings, who categorize artists by their sonic characteristics as opposed to their genres or degree of popularity. For instance, Cash and artists similar to him are identified by "country roots, folk influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, repetitive melodic phrasing and major key tonality." To be sure, it's far more precise than Last.fm, but the result is that similar artist radio can sometimes consist of multitudinous variations on a single idea and lacks the variety Last.fm's more democratic system offers. Pandora also lacks the depth offered by the input of so many, as its songs have each been listened to by an employee. Whereas Last.fm offers a number of incredibly obscure artists (including Mark, a band whose sole listener I suspected myself to be until I discovered at least four other fans through Last.fm), Pandora has gaping holes in some areas. While Last.fm's user base is global, Pandora's offerings are decidedly American. A search on Pandora for Os Mutantes, perhaps Brazil's most well-known psych export, comes up with nothing (listen closely and you'll hear the collective snort of music nerds citywide). Last.fm, on the other hand, offers a number of suggestions for Os Mutantes fans, and takes French bossa nova into account, as well.
Both sites offer only streaming radio and link to outside sources for listeners who would like to purchase their new discoveries. Pandora links to iTunes and Amazon, and Last.fm to a variety of music peddlers around the globe. For those who prefer their music in digital format, there are a number of Web sites that offer legal downloads for less than iTunes' 99 cents a pop. eMusic.com has a fine variety of independent and major label releases and offers subscriptions, like 90 downloads per month for $19.99. There are a few conspicuously absent labels, most notably Drag City and Sub Pop, but the price is so much lower than iTunes that you can use your saved money for a trip to Waterloo. For those few holdouts who're still using Windows, Napster.com has risen phoenixlike from its legal imbroglio to offer more than 1 million legal tracks. There are those less-legal options, of course, but you're no lawbreaker ... right?