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The three main players in this space — Pandora, Spotify and Last.fm — offer broadly comparable services, with a few details to separate them.
Although I didn’t look at them, there are other services — most notably Rdio and Mog — that offer features and pricing nearly identical to Spotify’s, so if you decide that you like the type of service Spotify offers, but have an issue with something related to Spotify specifically, it might be worth checking them out.
What They Do -- At their simplest, all three services stream songs based on selections you make. Spotify doesn’t make you do all the work, though, offering an “artist radio” option for playing songs chosen by the service based on a selected band. Last.fm fits somewhat between Spotify and Pandora, in that you can play thirty-second samples of some (but by no means all) songs to help you decide how to seed your station, but it otherwise reverts to the station model. Choice -- Based on raw numbers, Spotify has the largest catalog of the three, clocking in at 15.5 million tracks as of a year ago. Of course, all three offer the obvious selections — if you want to listen (for whatever reason; we’re not here to judge…) to One Direction or Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, you’ll find their music, unsurprisingly, on all three services.
Like most music lovers, I have a few relatively obscure favourites, and so I searched, first, for the Rainmakers, a country-rock band from Missouri who were big in the 1990s in Norway (really!). Next came the Tragically Hip, a classic Canadian rock band who have resolutely refused to make it big south of the border. I searched for Gin Wigmore, one of New Zealand’s finest; all three services knew about Gin. Zeppelin, another famous group that came to the iTunes Store only in 2007, were similarly unrepresented on the streaming services.
Recommendations (Music, not the Services) -- The key feature of all three services is their capability to recommend music based on your selections.
While Pandora’s selections might make logical sense, its reliance on similar features does, I suspect, take out any real human element from the recommending process; just because two artists often use minor-key tonality, does that mean I’d like both of them? Much more helpful were the Norwegian bands that fans of the Rainmakers are introduced to via Spotify’s artist radio. If you don’t like a song offered up by Pandora or Last.fm, you can skip to the next track, but only a fixed number of times per hour.
It integrates with your iTunes library so you can switch back and forth between local and streamed music fluidly, provides some social functions should you be intent on telling the world what you’re listening to, and sports a plug-in system of sorts. Last.fm and Pandora are Web-based applications, with no desktop clients (a paid Pandora subscription includes a desktop app, but it is, sadly, an Adobe Air app, which might put off many users). Independent developers offer a handful of lightweight front-end apps for controlling Pandora and Last.fm (Musicality works with both, in fact), but these are essentially single-purpose HTTP clients which can interact solely with their respective sites. Pandora’s site is relatively clean and uncluttered, with a search bar, playback controls, a list of stations and a “now playing” window containing information about the band, the song and possible alternatives.
Last.fm’s site, on the other hand, is rather fussy and busy, with a photo of the artist being played, a mini-bio and, at the bottom of the screen, adverts, and a list of comments by other listeners. Social Element -- All three services would like to become your social network of choice for music. Last.fm has clearly not heard about Ping, and has tried to incorporate its own social network elements into its Web site, but when I tried searching for my music-loving friends, of whom there are plenty, I found none.
Going Mobile -- Pandora and Last.fm may lack desktop applications, but both offer iPhone apps, as does Spotify. To be fair, the Spotify and Last.fm apps seem entirely similar, both offering a variety of artist-related information and supporting AirPlay. Recommendations (Services, not the Music) -- Last.fm excluded itself quite early on — the unpolished Web interface, the 30-second samples, and a general sense of “meh” left me feeling unimpressed by the service.
In contrast, Pandora sticks closely to the personalised radio station model, making it ideal for those who don’t want to put too much manual effort into choosing what to listen to, but who enjoy hearing music in particular veins. In the end, it’s only rock and roll, but I find I get my rocks off with Pandora’s iPhone app.
I've become a big fan of slacker, because, like those services that require you to be online, Slacker has a 'cached station' option, that works great when I'm in the gym with no wifi coverage or Verizon coverage. One issue to consider with these services is how much the musician gets compensated for each time you play their track. That's a great graphic, though it leaves me wondering what the average number of sales of each of those items would be as well.

Lucky bastards in New Zealand, you get at least some of Pandora, we poor Europeans have to do without it entirely! No, that's a feature - Spotify can play your local music as well, so you don't have to switch back and forth between it and iTunes. Looks like a good start, though it wouldn't play (or even show most of) my local iTunes tracks.
Now Playing window: This shows a page full with metadata information about the playing song.
Metadata selector: You can now look through all the results returned by the metadata plugin and pick the cover, lyric, etc you like best. A firefox like status bar, indicating repeat state, random state and when used the state of the dynamic playlist plugin. The last.fm plugin in the latest GMPC version only fetches artist images, generates playlists, etc.
Although the name suggests it, GMPC does not depend on Gnome anymore (for the last 4 years). Please check your email for a link that, when clicked, will verify that you're a real person and cause your comment to appear immediately. We use your email address only to send you a one-time verification message confirming that you posted this comment.
So I waited until the family were out, plugged my best powered speakers into my laptop, fired up the three services, and — oh, the things I do for TidBITS — I spent the afternoon listening to my favourite music. The only number I can find for Last.fm is 7 million tracks in 2009, though the site’s Wikipedia page claims 12 million. All three services knew about the Rainmakers; I was even pleasantly surprised to learn, from Spotify, that they have recently released a live album, which I promptly bought from iTunes. Spotify offered me their 2009 album “We Are The Same,” but none of their earlier (and vastly superior) albums.
Ulfuls, my favourite Japanese band, finally flummoxed Pandora, but Spotify (at least in New Zealand) and Last.fm were both equal to the challenge. Whether it’s called a “station” or “artist radio,” the idea is simple — if you liked that, you might like this. Despite sounding like something that could get consenting adults arrested before the war in England, scrobbling is nothing more than a music-playing service or system telling Last.fm what songs you’re listening to so that it can build up a coherent pattern.
Can Pandora’s recommendations really take into account the vast number of impossible-to-identify “I just really like that song!” indefinables that are part of the joy of discovering new music? Pandora’s Rainmakers station offered the same four or five acts repeatedly, but Spotify tossed in some quite surprising options (how else would I have discovered Beckstrom’s wonderful “Soster Morfin”?). Pandora and Last.fm are both Web-based experiences, at least on the desktop, while the Spotify experience is centred on a Mac application. But then, Apple wanted that too, and — let’s be brutally honest here — how many of us actually use Ping?
This is not surprising — Apple tried and failed with Ping, and it is unlikely that anyone apart from Twitter or Google could eat into Facebook’s domination of the field.
Once I log into my Pandora account on my phone, I can access the stations on my phone that I set up on my computer.
If you’re planning on paying for a service, you’ll appreciate the associated app, but the apps themselves don’t help much in the way of differentiation.
Spotify, Pandora, and Last.fm all offer free trials, but if you like their services, you’ll be paying in one form or another. Those of us in the rest of the world get 50 songs for free each month, after which it costs $3 (or €3, or ?3, depending on your desired currency) per month. Spotify is, essentially, a subscription alternative to ownership of music — pay your monthlies and listen to whatever you like.
Spotify offers an intriguing music subscription possibility, but, here in New Zealand, where every bit is metered, I would prefer to access most of my music locally, in my iTunes library or on my iOS device of choice, rather than via Spotify’s cloud. Its AirPlay capability makes me happy, so my preference lies not with Spotify, which, in New Zealand at least, simply doesn’t quite give me satisfaction, and I’m not swayed by Last.fm. I did think about adding remarks about sound quality, but then it occured to me that the quality of any of these services will, inevitably, be a little compromised for streaming purposes. However, it didn't seem to play music when I tested it, so I went back to it and realized that for some reason, it sets the sound output adapter on its own, rather than using the system setting, and it was thus set to something that would't work (hence, no sound).
I'm not going to talk about Music Player Daemon again, because we covered it when we talked about Sonata (including how to configure Music Player Daemon - MPD).

But, quietly, outside the Apple spotlight, online music streaming services have matured, to the point where one could rely entirely on them for one’s listening, listening for free (with ads) or paying a monthly subscription fee instead of purchasing individual tracks and albums.
Pandora brings up the rear here, with between 800,000 and 1 million tracks, depending on the source, although the company claims that 95 percent of Pandora’s songs are played every month, implying that size isn’t all that matters. Using, for reasons that should be quite obvious, the Rolling Stones as a sample, I tested the three services. In reality, however, the more mainstream your initial selection, the more likely you are to have heard, or at least heard of, the suggestions you are offered. Having its own standalone application gives Spotify the edge in terms of flexibility and functionality, and, for the most part, the Spotify app is well-constructed, with a reasonably clean and functional interface. For those running OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, it is of course possible to direct all system audio to an AirPort Express base station, for instance, by choosing AirPlay in the Sound preference pane.
As a result, Spotify and Pandora let Facebook do the hard work of running a social network for them, and then invite users to post details of the songs they’re listening to on Facebook.
As I listen, a tap in the top right corner of the screen reveals an information page containing lyrics, an artist bio, and extensive — very, very extensive — information about the song from the Music Genome Project, which is how I came to discover that the Stone Roses’ “Ten Storey Love Song” features, apparently, “subtle use of vocal harmony;” it must be very subtle. As noted previously, you also get a desktop app for Pandora, along with higher quality audio. Worse, Spotify doesn’t seem to have all that many advertisers, so you end up listening to the same ads repeatedly.
For directed exploration, where you want to listen to an entire album or even everything from an artist, Spotify is unparalleled. Where both Pandora and Spotify shine is as radio stations that know, and are willing to learn more about, what kind of music I like.
Of these, it seems Pandora is best and I spend my first three hours of the day listening to my "Hayden" station. Many hundreds of cultures, thousands of styles, over hundreds of years, all lumped in one category. I found the sound quality of each of them acceptable; beyond that, I was afraid of seeing the discussion end up focussed not on the services themselves but rather on arcane audiophile considerations.
When I reset it and relaunched the app, it did work.It's still pretty crude, but better than the Web site.
You will then see a blue icon in the bottom right corner saying the music database is updating. For example, search for “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones, double-click “Rocks Off,” and when that song finishes, Spotify simply moves on to play “Rip This Joint,” as Keith Richards intended.
Last.fm’s selection was limited, while Spotify’s appeared to be restricted to obscure non-EMI tracks and a bunch of covered tracks. Those using older versions of Mac OS X or who want additional control, can instead use Rogue Amoeba’s rather excellent Airfoil software to fill the gap.
Spotify, indeed, takes Facebook integration annoyingly far — in order to register with Spotify, a Facebook account appears now to be not just an option but in fact required. It is also the most expensive of the services, though even its Premium level is akin to buying only a single album per month. As long as I’m paying, Pandora gets the nod; Spotify’s American price tag (Stephen Sondheim was right…) would make that service my preference were I not fortunate enough to live in New Zealand. Serious musos will want to own the music, not stream it, and ideally own in an analogue format. Both Pandora and Last.fm were familiar with the Hip, but, of course, could only offer suggestions based on the band, rather than playing specific songs. Pandora, at least, played “Yesterday” as the band’s representative track when I set up a Beatles station. Of course, with Spotify, you don’t own the music you listen to, and at the point where you stop paying your Spotify bill, all that music disappears. I mean they distinguish between pop music in the the early 80s and late 80s, but they can't distinguish between classical music written in 1750 and classical music written in 1850!!! For some of you, no doubt, this concern is perhaps, silly, but really, Gesualdo is just NOT the same as Liszt!

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