By Jerry Dawson
American life contains a barrage of opportunities for personalization and choice. And with iTunes, torrent sites, YouTube and other Internet-based technologies, listeners have a near-paralyzing number of options to consider when the silence of a car ride, office cube, or treadmill needs to be broken.
Ever hear a friend mention that he wished he had a soundtrack for certain moments of his life? The Songza app, and iHeartRadio’s “perfect for” feature, seek to provide listeners with the realization—or illusion—that filtering through a few options is enough for their applications to provide the perfect playlist for any moment. Both applications might take on the tagline—“We know you so well, you won’t have to choose”
And at times, the applications come damn close.
Throughout my week of experimentation, the apps revealed some broad differences that were difficult to describe, but easy to spot when I used them daily. The only way to illustrate these differences is with a single-day, double-app showdown. Throughout one Saturday, I chose one playlist from each app in the morning, mid-day and at night. Each “round,” and eventually the entire showdown, has a winner, based on overall user experience.
Songza suggested that I may be “Drinking Gourmet Coffee,” “Relaxing at Home,” “Waking Up Happy,” “Working Out,” “Waking Up With Energy,” or “Falling Back Asleep.” All ubiquitous American Saturday A.M. pursuits. As I was drinking my first cup of Foldgers (that’s gourmet, right?) I selected “drinking gourmet coffee,” which led me to “Essential Jam Bands.”
What followed were a few staples for any Jam Band fan—Trey Anastasio, Umphrey’s McGee, and the Grateful Dead—mixed with some unfamiliar but listenable names—Lettuce and Big Head Todd & The Monsters; all provided a caffeinated yet soothing buzz that the playlist name promised.
Unlike Songza, iHeartRadio may present live-streaming radio stations from around the country instead of pre-made playlists.
I selected “Relaxing,” chose Chicago’s 93.9 FM, and was greeted with Hoobastank. This was grounds for immediate disqualification from the round.
Verdict: Songza by a landslide. The folks at Songza provide the right balance of familiarity and obscurity, and give the user choices while not making him/her do all the work. I go to a music streaming application because I find mainstream radio boring. At this point, I was thinking that iHeartRadio’s name is enough for me to form my opinion of it.
With a little more searching, I found myself at “Art House Radio Theater” listening to Bowie’s “Life on Mars” live. Slight redemption, but still no penance for the initial morning greeting from the ‘Stank.
On Saturday around lunchtime, iHeartRadio thought I might still be “Electing a New Pope,” “Gearing Up for the Oscars,” or feeling nostalgic for something from “Back in the Day.” Appropriately, it suggested I might be “Driving” or “Cleaning House.” While stuck inside on a rainy day, I chose “Driving” then, “80s Movie Montage.”
The “80s Movie Montage” provided a solid, yet predictable mix of tunes from flicks like Say Anything, St. Elmos Fire, and Risky Business. While I skipped a few sappy love songs, the mix is one that would keep me singing to myself on a long drive.
I’d listened to a lot of old music at that point, and decided to go with Songza’s “Brand New Music” > “Hip Hop/Rap” > “WorldStarHipHop’s Top Tracks.”
This playlist was like a sandwich with fresh-baked bread and bad cold cuts. It lured me in with a cool Kendric Lamar track, but then fizzled with an irritating new Lil Wayne song, and tracks by T.I., Meek Mill ft. Drake, and 2 Chainz, which were all reminiscent of bad car stereo systems driven by newly licensed suburban high school students. The list finished strong, though, with A$AP Rocky’s “1Train” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice.” Overall, it seemed the playlist was a mix of anything new, regardless of quality.
Verdict: While the two lists were apples and oranges, iHeartRadio takes the mid-day showdown. Neither playlist provided any obscure gems or new favorites, but the “80s Movie Montage” was a cohesive playlist that gave me exactly what I was expecting.
Saturday evening promised to test the apps’ limits—relaxing at home with loved ones, going out with friends, and the all-important pre-game festivities are always fueled with tunes.
iHeartRadio surprised me with its offerings here. The “Saturday Evening” page was not very different from the mid-day options. “Relaxing,” “Cleaning House,” and “Gearing Up for the Oscars” were all still available.
Before this experiment, I was unaware of the sonic preparation needed to watch an awards show or elect a religious leader.
Nevertheless, I surveyed the options, remembering that with nothing ventured, nothing is gained. I chose “Ladies Pre Game Party,” followed by the unexpected option, “Prog Bluegrass Square Dance.”
The songs I heard over the next half hour didn’t seem to compose a “pre-game” playlist unless the night out was a poetry slam. But tracks from the Avett Brothers, a quiet cover of the White Stripes, and a song from a mellow crooner named Justin Townes Earle made this a high-quality listen. Despite the sonic confusion created by labeling Prog Bluegrass as “pregame music,” this was the best playlist that iHeartRadio had offered all day.
To maintain a common denominator, I went to Songza looking for a similarly-themed list. I found the “Pregaming with Friends” option, ventured further into the “Indie Meets Pop: Cool Party Hits” genre, and finally, the “Up All Night” playlist.
This selection was true to its name. Songza showed its most mainstream selections of the day here with tracks from Aviccii, Jay-z ft. Kanye, Steve Akoi, and Diplo. While I sipped decaf tea and listened along, this playlist seemed like the most appropriate of the day for the activity it was matched with—loud, bass-driven party songs that require little thinking and much body moving.
Verdict: Both apps served-up familiar, sing-along tunes in this round, but Songza wins because of the appropriateness of the tracks for the activity selected. The allure of these apps is that the music seems to come from your own personal DJ, and the “Up All Night” playlist would keep any party crowd entertained.
The apps share a simple premise: remind the user of the day and time (which at first is strangely impressive—maybe it’s just me) and then present a list of activities common for this time. iHeartRadio ultimately presents the user with four playlists, while Songza presents the user with three.
A major difference between the apps is that iHeartRadio jumps from a list of activities right to the playlists, while Songza brings users through another filter providing choice six genres (sometimes annoyingly similar genres) that may be of interest.
So in theory, Songza provides six times as many playlists at any given moment.
iHeartRadio has other options that allow you to listen to mainstream radio stations from around the country, but for the purposes of this feature, those stations will only be addressed if they are presented through the “perfect for” option.
After spending a week experimenting with both apps I noticed a few other key differences.
Songza allows the user to time travel and tell a friend about it. If on a Tuesday morning at work the user prefers to be listening to Friday afternoon tunes, he can toggle to a playlist that would normally only come up during Happy Hour time. Sidebar links to post your listening to Facebook and Twitter allow you to share the experience of listening to “Margaritaville” while you should be paying attention in a meeting.
iHeartRadio allows you to mix familiarity (“familiar,” “mixed,” and “less familiar”) and offers artist bios, lyrics, and a link to buy music from iTunes.
Both applications are user-friendly, and succeed in taking the “work” out of music selection, while still providing that all-important personalized experience. The difference maker is in the right mix of music. And in that category, Songza is the victor. The app provides a mix of classics, modern-day hits, and songs that not even your hippest friend knows.
If you want background music that won’t catch your attention, iHeartRadio gives you a couple of options for any given time of day. But if you’re looking for that elusive “soundtrack to your life,” Songza is the way to go.