August 10, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Hands-On with Radical.fm, the ‘Ferrari’ of Music Services Taking on Pandora, Spotify

radical.fm

Here is the "Ferrari" that will apparently make Pandora and Spotify look like "minivans."

A bold upstart from Venice, California turned heads this week with the proclamation that it’s about to unveil a “new ultra-fast HTML5 player to rival Pandora and Spotify.” Another audacious claim: “This alpha test of our innovative player shows it to be a Ferrari in a field of minivans.”

Let me get this straight: The two market leaders in online music, with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, millions of loyal users, and proven track records for several years, are “minivans,” not to mention “boring as hell?” And this brand-new service nobody’s heard of before is the “Ferrari” that will school them all?

This we had to see, so we signed up for the alpha version of Radical.fm, which plans to launch to as a public beta in early fall.

Like Slacker and Samsung Music Hub, Radical.fm says it offers both of the main types of music service: on-demand streaming (a la Spotify) and personalized radio (a la Pandora), as well as some neat, non-existent features we’ll get to later.

The short story: To call this a Ferrari compared to Pandora’s and Spotify’s minivans is overstating the case to put it mildly.

On-Demand

Let’s start with the on-demand part. Radical’s version of “on-demand” differs from Spotify significantly in that it has no music. We kid… by the time it launches in public beta, Radical.fm says it will allow subscribers (no price announced yet) to create playlists on a song-by-song basis from its entire catalog of over 22 million songs — about 5 million more than Spotify has.

Non-paying users — the same ones who can hear whatever they want on Spotify as many times as they want — could be restricted to assembling playlists from songs that bands upload to Radical.fm via SoundCloud,  i.e. bands they’ve never heard of before (or possibly to song samples of the full catalog or some other limited version, see update), while non-US users will definitely be subject to those restrictions.

Update: “Free users will be able to search the complete library and listen to all tracks, with some possible caps and limitations that have yet to be decided,” clarified Radical.fm business development and marketing adviser Frank Colin.

What about paying subscribers? Will Radical.fm really offer them five million more on-demand songs than Spotify does?

“The playlist function gives you access to our full library,” confirmed Radical.fm executive assistant and music director Sima Guyumdzhyan to Evolver.fm via email. ”However, at launch only Indie music will be available to users in Europe.”

As of today, the only way to add a song to a playlist is to hear it randomly then click the Plus button. You can then click any song in your playlists to hear it whenever you want — or you can add songs until there are 50, at which point it becomes a “Genre” you can mix in with the rest. Radical.fm does have a search function, but it doesn’t work (yet?), so it’s not a true on-demand service by any stretch.

Bottom line: This does not appear to be a service “to rival Spotify” for paying subscribers, and it’s definitely not one for the non-paying music fans who comprise the majority of online music listeners. To be fair, it’s still in alpha.

Radio

Let’s move on to the radio service — the one that will supposedly make market-leading Pandora look like a minivan. Unlike most streaming radio services, Radical.fm lacks the ability to let you create artist stations. Instead, it takes you back in time to when music was categorized by genre –you know, the way record stores used to do.

Granted, Radical.fm provides a bit more granularity than just “Rock”; you can choose from genres like Adult Pop, Classic Rock, Funk, Reggae, and Country, and then from sub-genres within those, like  ”Todays [sic] Rock Hits” or “Modern Rock of the 90s.” The service says it has access to over 22 million songs (just like any other radio service that wants to pay SoundExchange for a DMCA-compatible stream), and that its staff is working hard to categorize all of those songs into its genres and subgenres. That should be easy.

(As yet more evidence that the word “Alternative” has become meaningless, Radical.fm’s “Alternative Rock” subcategory is defined as “Mainstream rock who’s [sic] sound leans towards that of an emerging indie band.”)

I built my first station out of Modern Rock of the ’90s, ’70s Classic Rock, Old School R&B, and Traditional Reggae, which started the music playing. The service presented us with some slider-like controls with which to shape the stations, which Radical.fm says makes it sort of like satellite radio:

Radical.fm presents sliders that let you control how much music from various sub-genres makes it into your station.

We’re willing to believe that some people want to listen by genre (satellite and FM radio continue to attract huge audiences). Sometimes, you just want to start some music and go about your day. Unfortunately, the first song was Silverchair’s embarrassing “Anthem for the Year 2000,” which sounds like a naive child pretending to be Kurt Cobain. Luckily, Radical.fm offers the chance to block either the song or artist, offering a degree of artist/song customization, which is nice:

radical.fm block artist song

But it would be nicer if we’d never had to hear that song at all — a drawback of classifying things by genre, rather than using a more precise method.

Interestingly, we were able to skip as many songs as we want as well as moving forward and back in the station as much as we wanted, whereas the DMCA restricts qualifying streaming radio services to six skips for hour and stops users from rewinding ad infinitum (unless they pay for a much more expensive license). Again, we’re willing to chalk this up to Radical.fm still being in private alpha, but it also means the service has even more work to do before it can launch “in early fall.”

Upcoming Extras

Radical.fm will also have a music store component, which it says will let bands sell their music without surrendering any commission — indeed, a unique feature that could encourage indie bands to upload their tracks, assuming Radical.fm can attract an audience.

Two other major pieces of the puzzle also have yet to appear: a social networking component (another thing most other services have by now, thanks to Facebook integration) and a personal broadcasting component called RadCast, which will let you stream your station to friends, the way you can with Myxer. An intriguing Talk feature promises to let broadcasters click a button and start talking into a microphone to insert their voice into their stations. Ostensibly, you’ll be able to invite your Facebook friends to listen to your channel, and then speak to them through the station.

This last feature could be quite powerful, because nobody has made it work yet on a mass scale. Wahwah.fm impressed us in the spring at SXSW with its ability to let people broadcast internet radio stations from their iPhones to the world, but it went out of business this summer, citing high licensing costs. Meanwhile, Shoutcast is just too complicated. We’ve sort of seen this feature before with Myxer’s Song Stories, which aren’t live, but rather canned recordings of people’s views about a certain song (so that other listeners to that song can hear what they had to say about it). So Radcast Talk would truly be new, and we’re looking forward to checking it out when it launches.

The main Radical.fm service, funded by undisclosed investors, will only be available in the United States. As for mobile versions, Radical.fm says it’s working on apps for “iPhone/iPads, Androids, and other mobile devices,” so we have that to look forward to.

Overall, this is a whole lot of vapor from a company that claims Spotify and Pandora are boring minivans to its own Ferrari. We almost feel bad taking potshots at a fledgling service that’s still in alpha, but by belittling established players with deeper features that actually exist; catalogs that actually play; and tens of millions of actual users, Radical.fm has inflated expectations quite a bit. We’re disappointed that it doesn’t come close to delivering even at this early stage.

Basically, Radical.fm looks like a paper tiger picking fights with actual lions. I’ve been wrong before though (like when I told an early Paypal employee that nobody would ever trust a service that let them email money.) For other impressions of Radical.fm, see the following:

The Radio Agency (Interview Part 1)

The Radio Agency (Interview Part 2)

The Radio Agency: If Pandora and Spotify Had a Baby

Digital Music News: Radical.fm: ‘A Ferrari in a Field of Minivans”

PandoDaily: Radical.fm Goes After Traditional Radio’s “Last Bastion of Security”

The Wrap: After Pandora and Spotify, What’s Next?

Hypebot: 7 Standout Startups from SF Music Tech

Hypebot: Radical.fm Launches New HTML5 Player, Aims Sites [sic] On Pandora and Spotify

RAIN: Radical.fm Has Radical Ambitions to Take on Pandora, Spotify, and Turntable.fm… All at Once (at least this one is sort of skeptical)

Fast Company: Radical.FM Takes Kitchen Sink Approach to Online Radio

All Access Music Group: Radical.fm Launches Web-Based Player