As Pandora looks forward to a potential $100 million IPO to help it expand beyond its 30 million-plus active users, a group of upstarts at Songza – formerly of the start-up Amie St. — look to remake the way we listen to online radio.
Following Amazon’s purchase of Amie St. (but “not in a good way,” as TechCrunch put it), this group of former college friends bought the playlist creation and sharing service Songza in 2009 with the idea of turning it into something like Pandora, but with more of a playlist-sharing feel — and without poaching audio from YouTube, as the original Songza did.
“The fundamental change [between then and now] is that version one of Songza was built entirely on the back of YouTube and imeem,” Songza CEO Elias Roman told Evolver.fm. “We switched it to a ‘non-interactive,’ DMCA-compliant radio model in January of 2010. It’s all our own [licensed] content… 11.3 million songs.”
Roman said Songza conducted “hundreds of hours” of interviews with streaming music listeners last year and launched several test versions before arriving at the current iteration, released about a month ago. Roman claims this research made the ad-supported Songza a credible alternative to more established interactive radio services.
“If you look at the [music] space, a lot of the key players, whether it’s Apple, Pandora or Last.fm, are closing in on a decade old,” said Roman. “And not a lot of them have had dramatic user-experience changes.”
Songza’s research indicated that people were looking for new ways to create a new station besides choosing artists and around whom to base stations loosely, according to Roman. To demonstrate, he created an artist station around Fleet Foxes — exactly as one would with most other streaming services.
“This is where the sort of Pandora-esque part of Songza stops,” he noted. “First, we show you other stations featuring Fleet Foxes, and these are not stations that you’ll find on Last.fm, Pandora, Slacker, or anywhere else… These stations created by people who feature Fleet Foxes… in handmade mixtapes.”
Songza and its users have created about 67,000 such stations to date by handpicking each song, rather than specifying a song or artist and letting an algorithm do the rest (see below for more on that wrinkle). Songza also borrows from Netflix’s genre-mashing recommendations (i.e. “crime dramas with a strong female lead”).
Other niceties include an activity feed that improves if you sign in with your Facebook feed because it can show you what your Facebook friends have been listening to, and let you make stations out of that; and an activity history that lets you go back and listen to the stations you heard earlier.
But the core of the service is probably the “Find More Music” button. If you click it while listening to a station, Songza recommends more stations based on your currently-playing one, your location, and/or whether you’re into (for example) “best of” lists, pop music, female vocals, one-hit wonders, “music for dancing,” and so on.
“You start to build up this preset — not of stations, but of categories that you’re interested in, very much like the Netflix experience,” Roman explained, adding that goal of the service is to lead you to “this list of stations created by hand… they’re almost best described as mixtapes.”
Indeed, Songza does offer more control over what goes into its stations than the competition does, although you won’t be able to hear them in that form. Only your friends will.
Instead of choosing an artist (as with Pandora) or even a song (as in Slacker) to create a station around, users can handpick each and every song that makes it into a station. The company gets away with this, from the perspective of the DMCA and its attendant copyright issues, by allowing only other people to hear the station in that handpicked, mixtape form. When you listen to it yourself, you get a stream with other music mixed in, the way you would with the competition.
It’s a clever approach, and all in all, this latest version of Songza does succeed in offering a new mix of features that fits in somewhere between Muxtape and the more established players. Whether it can make a dent in a business like streaming radio, whose demands to balance ad dollars against royalty payments can challenge even big players like Pandora and Last.fm, remains to be seen.
It’s funny, in a way. We used to make mixtapes from the radio. Now, we make radio stations out of mixtapes.