Music is supposed to be a social experience, but some songs we sing exclusively in the shower or keep hidden inside headphones. It's the difference between the artists we list on our Facebook profiles and the music actually populating our "Most Played" lists on iTunes—the songs we want people to think we listen to versus the songs we actually listen to. So while many services have tried to crack social sharing—MySpace, Ping, Spotify, Turntable.fm, Rdio, and even new offerings such as Clear Channel's iHeartRadio—few have actually tapped into the magic of genuine music discovery.
But two services, both of which have been around the block, have launched new social features that come closer than ever to the kind of music discovery you experienced when a college radio DJ opened your ears to R.E.M. or Nirvana or Public Enemy or an entirely new slew of artists. Pandora and Rhapsody's new social tools let you not only share playlists or radio stations full of the music you want everyone to know you like—they reveal the music you actually listen to, Backstreet Boys and all.
Web radio service Pandora has a new "Music Feed," a feature that provides a centralized stream of all the songs your friends are listening to, in real-time. It keeps the recently IPO'd service ahead of increasingly similar offerings from competitors, which do not offer as precise a discovery formula as Pandora's Music Genome Project. Pandora's Genome synthesizes all your proclaimed tastes into musical traits, pulling in your passive listening habits as well, to spit out the next song in your endless playlist. With "Music Feed," you can now set off on a friend's path of discovery, too, and allow it to guide your experience. (You can always veer off into your own tastes.) The feature is scheduled to go live to the service's freemium users at the end of September.
Meanwhile, subscription service Rhapsody offers artist radio stations, but it's mostly designed for the active music explorer. (In marketing speak, it's a "lean-forward" experience, whereas Pandora offers a more "lean-back" one.) And now Rhapsody is allowing its 800,000 subscribers to create searchable profiles, complete with its new "High Volume" feature, which offers a snapshot of all the music a user has been listening to recently. Users can search for other user playlists, or check out what their Facebook friends are into, regardless of whether their Facebook friends are Rhapsody members. There's even game mechanics baked into some of Rhapsody's new offerings: "Top Listeners" who spin tons of a certain genre's tunes are displayed prominently, and fellow users can "follow" them, or browse their radio stations and recent playlists.
All of this means both Rhapsody and Pandora, more than any competing services, now allow their users to search for or discover music not just by artist, album, or genre, but by the people who associate themselves with those artists, albums, and genres. It taps into the way we identify with music, both through the artists we say we like—and the artists we actually listen to.
Here's an example of that distinction. Over the past week or so, a few editors here at Fast Company have been playing around with the services. If you were to ask one of the editors—who shall remain anonymous—what her favorite band is, she'd say Wilco. But on Pandora, we soon noticed her Music Feed featured stations that often played pop artists such as the Backstreet Boys, O-Town, and Katy Perry.
The point isn't to embarrass said editor (she swore the BSB radio was her husband's...and don't act like you don't have guilty pleasures on your iPod!); rather it shows how often we identify with music and artists we'd never publicly praise. It leaves room for some embarrassment—but also some fun discovery. (OMG, I secretly sing NKOTB's "Hangin Tough" while doing the Running Man in the shower!)
Facebook is believed to be launching a social music service of its own at its f8 conference Sept. 22 with Spotify, MOG, Rdio, or other services, but it doesn't appear that Facebook will actually host the music. And if it ends up merely organizing what Facebook users say they like, then Pandora and Rhapsody (for $10 a month) will still offer a better, more social all-in-one experience for discovering music. Even the music you might not want discovered.
[Image: Flickr user smashthirteen]