With the U.S. launch of Spotify, music fans who spend their day at a computer pretty much have their every wish granted. But it’s also a workplace curse, because you can now endlessly search and queue up tracks (Spotify), stream algorithmically perfect tunes (Pandora), and groove with your friends (Turntable.fm). But can you get anything done in the meantime?
Then again, does any music actually help you crank on deadline?
Music is a subtle but strong mood agent. The masters of commercial and enterprise background music, Muzak, have a host of self-serving research assembled (direct PDF link there) that suggests music can lower stress and improve productivity. Workers in a British bank cleared 22.3% more checks with "engaging" music than workers with very slow or no music, according to studies by Dr. Adrian North at the University of Leicester. In another study, half the participants listened to "music to induce happiness," while the other half listened to music "to induce aggression." You can guess which group had 55 volunteers offering to hand out flyers for a disabled athlete charity, and which had 23.
What variety of music will best help you get through the day? That’s a mostly anecdotal field. I’ve previously dug into the topic, finding that some like classical, others techno and ambient tracks, and some like to get clever and play foreign music tracks, so they definitely can’t focus on the words. You might find that Jens Lekman somehow makes you aggressive, or be so familiar with Mastodon that it’s basically audio comfort food.
With that in mind, we plunged into the major streaming services to see which offered the best opportunity for finding your own happiness-inducing, check-clearing groove, without outright begging you to change the playlist/channel/seeding artist.
What makes it perfect: Scarily instant playing of any of 15-million-plus songs. Automatic syncing of all the music on your computers and phone, too—basically, iTunes without the white cords.
What makes it terrible: Just that same thing—it’s all too easy to lose time creating My Ultimate Work Playlist, pulling from your deepest memories and an even deeper library. While tracks are playing, too, you might think, "Hey, I wonder if anyone’s covered the Velvet Underground’s 'Here She Comes Now?'" Self-loathing and email excuses for blown deadlines are sure to follow.
How to groove more and fiddle less: Unlike other services, Spotify holds actual, entire albums in its collection, so use that to your advantage. Pretend it’s 1971, if that helps. Pick three albums for the day, or three playlists, and disallow yourself from doing anything more than pausing and skipping. Add albums on your lunch break, but save custom playlists for off hours. You'll be interrupted by ads every so often in the free version, or you can upgrade for $5-$10 per month.
What makes it perfect: It’s theoretically set and forget. Type in "Dr. John" or "The Meters," and you’ll be grooving to New Orleans R&B from similar artists all afternoon.
What makes it terrible: Pandora’s library of about 800,000 tracks sounds limitless, but certain genres and styles have shallow wells. It’s tempting to find just the right artist to fit the mood before your 3 p.m. meeting.
How to groove more and fiddle less: The free version includes often ear-grabbing ads, an occasional awful song that you’ll need to vote down, and "are you still there pauses" that will distract you from, uh, what was I saying? ... Oh yeah, for $36 a year you can upgrade to Pandora One, which is ad free. Otherwise, try picking genres where you aren’t emotionally invested in ranking and rating the contenders.
What makes it perfect: You’re in a room with friends, perfect strangers, or a mixture of both, and they’re picking the music. Plus, there are dedicated rooms ("Indie While You Work," "Coding Soundtrack") for work-friendly tunes.
What makes it terrible: Rewarding good tracks with the "Awesome" button, which starts to feel like a guilty necessity after a while. And if you grab a DJ slot, you’ll be endlessly tweaking your playlist to one-up other DJs.
How to groove more and fiddle less: Before 4 p.m. on Friday, stick to rooms with large crowds and music you don’t get into bar arguments about. After 4 p.m. on Friday, feel free to grab a DJ slot, but batch your track picks five at a time, don’t worry about how they’re received too much—let the haters hit the "Lame" button.
Which service makes for the best at-work listening experience? We compared the three recent newsmakers against a few other competitors in the space, like Rdio and Grooveshark, and factored in IT hassles (namely involving Internet Explorer) and diversity (so as not to enrage those around you).
- Pricing: Free, with advertising, limitations on track "skips," and semi-frequent "Are you still there?" pauses. Pandora One, $36/year, removes limitations and ups audio quality.
- Requirements: Currently, a browser with Adobe Flash installed, or an iPhone or Android connected to Wi-Fi or unlimited mobile data. Coming soon, though, is a non-Flash web version. Pandora One subscribers can use Windows or Mac desktop apps.
- Internet Explorer?: If your browser runs Flash, it’s generally usable, even on Internet Explorer 6. The transition to non-Flash, HTML5-based streaming has begun, however, which could leave Internet Explorer browsers before version 9 behind.
- Artist/Song Selection: 80,000 artists and 800,000 tracks (as of June 2011)
- How Many Albums by The Smiths?: Exact count unknown, but seemingly all the standard LPs.
- How Many Albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers?: From experience, mostly the later-period, Anthony-Kiedis-actually-sings albums.
- Repetition Factor: For very specific tastes (fast-plucked acoustic guitar, say, or dub reggae), a week of listening will reveal limitations. On almost all stations, expect Coldplay and Mazzy Star’s "Fade Into Me."
- Pricing: Free usage in U.S. is ad-supported, limited in track replays, and 20 hours per month maximum after a promo period. "Unlimited" for $5 per month removes ads and limits, $10 per month "Premium" allows mobile use and offline listening.
- Requirements: Windows or Mac software installation for free or Unlimited use; iPhone or Android for mobile use with Premium.
- Internet Explorer?: N/A
- Artist/Song Selection: 15 million tracks, claimed to be growing by 10,000 tracks per day.
- How Many Albums by The Smiths?: All of them—plus orchestral, tribute, karaoke, and other take-offs.
- How Many Albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers?: Almost like the flip of Pandora: earlier, punk-funk stuff, but not the later, pop-type stuff.
- Repetition Factor: That’s on you and your friends. Playlists are created manually, and songs can be sent from user to user.
- Pricing: Free while the startup phase lasts; requires a Facebook friend to be using Turntable.fm already.
- Requirements: Any browser that can handle media streaming fairly well: Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or Internet Explorer 9 (though 8 may work, too). Works on iPads and other tablets, and somewhat on mobile.
- Internet Explorer?: 8 or 9 recommended. And even then, don’t expect grace.
- Artist/Song Selection: 11 million tracks with lots of indie labels, via MediaNet.
- How Many Albums by The Smiths?: Most of their catalog, including singles and rare tracks.
- How Many Albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers?: Limited search list obscures the full reach, but seemingly most of their earlier and later albums.
- Repetition Factor: Almost zilch, unless you’re DJ-ing with very boring/prank-ish friends.
- Pricing: $4.99 per month for web or Windows/Mac app access; $9.99 for mobile, higher quality, and offline. Free 7-day trial of all features.
- Requirements: Most modern browsers should work, on most systems. iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry for mobile.
- Internet Explorer?: 8 or later for best results.
- Artist/Song Selection: Seven million tracks, give or take. Very surprising rarities in the jazz, R&B, soul categories, and other lower-selling genres.
- How Many Albums by The Smiths?: Strangely, tracks seemed to be missing from "Meat is Murder," but the rest seems firmly in place.
- How Many Albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers?: Mid-to-later Peppers easy to find. Earlier stuff is a few here, a few there.
- Repetition Factor: Fairly slim when using the random/pre-populated playlists. Rdio takes a broad approach to "similar artists," and has deep cuts in non-pop genres.
- Pricing: $6 per month or $60 per year for Plus, to remove ads, crossfade songs, etc. $9 per month or $90 per year for Anywhere, allowing smartphone apps and offline listening.
- Requirements: A browser with Flash, or a Windows, Mac, or Linux system running Adobe Air. Unofficial iPhone app requires a "jailbroken" iPhone to install.
- Internet Explorer?: Should work fine, but version 6 might be tricky.
- Artist/Song Selection: 2010 estimates put the count at around 7 million. But really, it’s the sum upload tastes of 35 million international users.
- How Many Albums by The Smiths?: Most of them, but notably out of order or mis-labeled.
- How Many Albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers?: See above. Then again, you might make out great with tracks that appeal more to geeks (see: Dubstep)
- Repetition Factor: In Grooveshark’s Pandora-like radio mode, you can see the tracks that are coming up, and so avoid sound-alikes entirely. If you’re adding tracks yourself, or following "favorite" friends, it’s smooth sailing.