Free music faceoff: Spotify's radio stations aren't as good as Songza's playlists

Yesterday streaming music service Spotify rolled out a new feature. You can now stream Spotify "radio stations" via iOS devices without paying for a subscription. Radio stations, in Spotify terms, are non-specific playlists built around a root song or band. It's pretty much the exact thing that Pandora offers.

With Spotify's version, non-paying customers will hear short (15 seconds) audio ads mixed in with the music. These aren't too intrusive; in my brief tests a short ad came up every 4 songs or thereabouts. But just to be clear, you still can't pick a specific song to play without being a Premium (paying member). For instance I just generated a station based on The Kinks and the first song I got was David Bowie's Space Oddity. That seemed in the right ball park. But the next song was The Black Keys Lonely Boy which wasn't at all what I was looking for. After that it was Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, The Rolling Stones Wild Horses, Eric Clapton's Layla (acoustic version) and then finally I got a Kinks song, Sunny Afternoon.

To me, Spotify's Radio Stations are at best OK. But hey, they're free, right?

But I have an alternate to suggest: Songza. Songza, which only recently rolled out its iOS app, is a playlist based service. It's free and is supported by visual rather than audio ads in the app (or on the website if you listen that way). Songza's playlists are compiled by people, not algorithms.

As with Spotify you can't request a specific song on Songza. You can check out Featured playlists, recent playlists, your favorites and so forth, including searching on an artist to find playlists that include that artist. But I really get a kick out of Songza's Music Concierge service.

I'm writing this post Tuesday evening and Songza's concierge is offering to find me music for "Playing iPad Games," "Unwinding After a Long Day," "Reading," "Bedtime" (hey Songza, it's only 9:30!) or the more generic "Brand New Music" and "Popular Genres."

If I drill into, say "Unwinding After a Long Day" I get the following sub-categories: "Atmospheric Indie," "Relaxing & Eclectic Mixes," "Evening Jazz," "Laid-back Acoustic," "Intimate Singer-Songwriter" and "Relaxing Classical."

I drill down again, this time into "Atmospheric Indie" and find three playlists: "Dream Pop," "Indie R&B" and "Mellow Electro." Each of these has a brief blurb giving more details on what it's about, and if I don't like any of them I can back up and drill into a different category. As an example, "Dream Pop" is described as "Hazy, soothing pop songs that'll make you feel like you're having the best dream ever" and includes songs from Beach House, Caribou, Air, Grizzly Bear and Cocteau Twins. 79 songs total in the playlist so it should keep you occupied for a while.

Once you select a playlist you'll see a list of other playlists with similar music. If you like the one you're listening to you can Favorite it so you can find it easily later. In the iPad version of the Songza app you can also bounce over to iTunes to buy any song you like.

Anyway, it always feels a little strange to prattle on about a free service when you can just check it out yourself. You can start using Songza on the web without even logging in. The iOS apps do require a login; you can use Facebook or set up a stand alone account (thank you, Songza, for not forcing us to use Facebook).

I've been using Songza a lot both on the web at work and now from my iPad and I find the curated playlists to be a lot more satisfying than the generated music stream I get from Pandora or now Spotify. And I much prefer the visual ads to having my music interrupted by an ad for McDonald's. Give it a try; you've got nothing to lose!

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