October 27, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Slacker App Combines Pandora, Spotify Approaches

Slacker's upcoming iPhone app will let subscribers save songs they hear on interactive radio stations into playlists. It also lets you add songs the regular way, by searching (image courtesy of Slacker).

Fiery interweb scribe Bob Lefsetz has bucked conventional wisdom for years by claiming Slacker’s internet radio service rocks Pandora’s world because it offers more control over the interactive music stations that accompany an increasing number of our commutes, workdays, jogs, road trips, office parties and even subway rides (thanks to an offline listening feature that stores playlists on the phone’s memory so you don’t need your data plan).

Slacker vice president Jonathan Sasse told Evolver.fm that the long-awaited on-demand version of Slacker will be ready for action on the Android, Blackberry and iPhone platforms (images right and below) as well as the web starting in early November, augmenting its successful line of free and subscription streaming radio apps.

Unlike the current version of Slacker’s smartphone and web apps, this one will include on-demand listening — “on-demand” in the sense that you can hear any song  from its millions-strong catalog and add the ones you like into portable playlists that you can listen to whenever and wherever you want.

Slacker’s strategy in trying to become your next favorite music service is simple: It will attempt to combine two successful music services that music fans have already proven we like: Pandora and Spotify.

A) Slacker will continue to offer its free, popular, somewhat-Pandora-style radio service to lure users in and keep them listening for months (Halloween station), before they hopefully;

B) choose to subscribe to the on-demand version of the service for $10 per month, after which buttons will appear next to any currently-playing song on the Slacker website or mobile app allowing them to add the song to their permanent collection.

Whether from a radio station or the search box, songs are added to the permanent collection through playlists. And of course, subscribers will also be able to search the entire catalog (all four majors, many indies) and add whatever they want, too (see image below).

This likely sounds familiar to people who already use Pandora for internet radio and Spotify (Europe-only, for the most part) for assembling a free or paid cloud-based music collection. Slacker already does essentially what Pandora does in the states, but Spotify famously has yet to launch here.

Why are we Americans still so Spotify-deprived?

Slacker runs on Android, Blackberry and iPhone; as shown here, it lets you browse by artist, song and album, downloading whatever you want into portable playlists (image courtesy of Slacker).

The almost certain reason we still can’t use the much-anticipated Spotify on-demand music app in the States is that the company wants to continue the practice that made it so popular in Europe, of allowing people to use it indefinitely for free — all the better to convince them eventually to upgrade, adding mobile playback and other features.

Spotify recently started enforcing a 20-hour-per-month limit for new free customers, which it hopes will continue to offer a decent enough free experience to get people hooked, the same way Pandora’s free radio service does.

Slacker thinks it has found different bait with which to attract users to a Spotify-like service without going bankrupt paying on-demand licensing fees: the free, customizable streaming radio stations many of us already know and love.

By joining two successful aspects of the so-called music ecosystem — streaming radio and collecting music after an unlimited free trial — Slacker hopes to give listeners something that’s worth using for free and, when the time comes, something worth paying for.

To an extent, it’s a bait-and-switch, because the free version is one thing (customized radio) and the paid version is another (the ability make portable playlists out of a catalog of millions of songs). But it sounds like a better option for music fans than the on-demand alternatives in this country so far, which require a credit card before you can try the “free” version.

The magic bullet for Slacker in its radio service to date, even before its impending on-demand subscription add-on, has been its been allegiances with the carriers — ironic, given that app-based smartphones made history by dissolving carriers’ historic control over which apps users can install. By bundling the Slacker app with hardware as a default option on phones that support whatever apps the user wants to install — especially the Blackberry, where it doesn’t have as much competition as it does on the iPhone — Sasse reports great success:

“We have Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile as partners that are all pre-loading their applications on various handsets, and that serves us in two ways. Obviously, we get the factory pre-load, which is awesome, because it’s the first music app they see. But in addition to that, we continue to bet heavy on subscriptions, which is definitely a different path than our friends at Pandora are taking that’s working out really well for us.”

Like Slacker's other mobile apps, its Blackberry version will soon allow subscribers to hear any song in the entire catalog instantly, as well as adding it into portable playlists.

The key, he said, is that in order to subscribe to Slacker on some handsets, you don’t need to whip out your credit card because you can just add Slacker as an extra feature on your AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon phone bill (although the iPhone app requires going through Apple’s App Store):

“We’re seeing very strong conversion rates [to the paid, ad-free version of Slacker radio] because we can do direct billing with the carriers. That’s a strong point for us. It’s a reason we think we’re going to win in on-demand, even though on-demand has never been terribly successful, because we’re going to bring that into an application that has a free experience associated with it, which has never been done before, and it’s going to have this ‘add it to my phone bill’ option, which has never really been done before on this kind of scale.”

It will be no easy feat to convince more music fans to pay for a monthly music service even given Slacker’s unlimited free version, considering the competition, and Apple and Google are also both rumored to be readying cloud-based music services.

And the stakes are high, because this isn’t just about web browsers and smartphones. With music services set to migrate to the living room via apps that run on set-top boxes and videogame consoles, any success from Slacker (or its competitors) in the smartphone sector translates to a leg up in the living room, too.

One thing Slacker is not going to do, confirms Sasse, is try its hand at creating hardware again. The company used to manufacture its own portable connected music player hardware, but now that music players can be smartphone apps rather than standalone devices, Slacker’s experience could prove an advantage — especially considering that Apple and Google have yet to dabble with the streaming services at all.

Music fans who want to give this new system a try can do so in early November or so, when the next free Slacker app — this time, with an optional on-demand listening feature — is slated for release.