Radical.FM's new system launches today as a private invite-only beta (a la many a new Google app). Soon, though, you'll be able to sign up for the public beta in the U.S., and international roll-outs will happen later in the year. It'll carry music from the "big four" U.S. music labels at launch, but a second site with much of the same skills will also follow, rocking music from independent labels. At first it's a web-based system, but it'll soon arrive on smartphones via apps. And so this is not a tiny effort at radically overhauling the online music streaming game. But what's so different about it?
While online music systems like Pandora stream "tailored" channels, based on a user's taste and Spotify concentrates on cloud-based on-demand streaming, Radical.FM offers both these options—you can almost picture it as the online equivalent of your old car stereo, where you dial through to a music station that suits your taste or slot in your favorite tape.
And then there's also the other trend that's invading nearly every online service now: Social media sharing. LiveShare, Radical's "broadcast" system, will let you stream your personal music lineup to whoever wants to listen, in real-time, and there's even the DeeJay mode that lets you overlay your own commentary on the top. Which basically turns your radio feed into a personalized radio station, You.FM if you will. This is clever, and it's easy to imagine this kicking off all sorts of unexpected social behaviors, including certain individuals with compelling styles easily becoming popular amateur radio DJs.
Part of Radical's seemingly unique skills involve the way that the preselected channels are formed: Instead of trying to predict the content that would appeal to clients, it's more interactive. Songs are pre-tagged into genres that match what you may find playing on a, say, a Country or Rock radio station. Users then "blend" genres into their own mix, and then adjust it by turning up or down the importance of a particular genre in the blend—and you can do this dynamically, so if your current listening mood needs more cowbell then it's probably just a click or two away. And if you really don't fancy any Van Halen in the stream, then you can turn off entire artists as well as single tracks.
So what we have here is a big-scale, clever, mashup of all of Radical's peers in one place—or the "first time all of these functions will be available in one integrated service," according to the press release. And there's a whole intelligent-seeming social angle that sounds much cleverer than Apple's own attempt with Ping ever seemed (despite the fact that Apple's the industry leader in MP3 sales).
But there's the rub. Apple is on the brink of pushing iTunes into the cloud, with an impressive new adjustment to its systems. No one knows yet how well the experiment will work, but early numbers from customer surveys look promising. It's not quite music streaming, but it's close enough—and if you're using a mobile device, it likely won't eat as much of your (soon to be capped) mobile data tariff. And then there's the hot-tipped blend of Spotify and Facebook, which could see an explosion in the use of Spotify's music streaming system thanks to the hundreds of millions of Facebookers, and the fact that social sharing of tracks may easily become a habit inside Facebook's userbase. Don't forget that Apple is also deeply integrating Twitter into iOS, which could also inject a certain social sharing angle to iTunes.
Neither Apple nor Facebook-Spotify necessarily offer the same kind of next-gen social skills and broadcasting options that Radical will—although it would be relatively easy for Facebook to move toward some of them with in-house apps. But both of these systems may end up being "good enough" for the majority of users, because they're interlaced with how they normally use the web. And that's Radical's biggest challenge.
[Image: Flickr user profilerehab]