This week is Online Music Week at Read/WriteWeb, so I decided to check out how the leading music streaming services compared. I used this week's poll to determine the top 5 apps. As of writing, the top 5 are quite a bit ahead of the the rest of the services in our poll. They are: last.fm, Pandora, Yahoo Music, iTunes Music Service and Rhapsody.

To test each of the above 5 services, I wanted to see if my favorite band - The Velvet Underground - could be found. And if so, did it play similar artists or have some way for me to 'personalize' my music listening experience? After all, personalization is a big part of 'web 2.0'. So here goes...

last.fm

I use last.fm a lot and one thing it does very well is provide a custom music stream based on an artist. Here are the first 5 songs that came up for VU:

1. Head Held High by The Velvet Underground
2. Havalina by Pixies
3. Beautiful by Smashing Pumpkins
4. Getchoo by Weezer
5. Das Lied Der Deuschen by Nico

All of those songs were to my liking and were an appropriate mix of modern Alt rock and arty pop (the Nico track). In other words, very much in the spirit of VU.

All up, a very solid 4.5/5 for last.fm.

Pandora

Unfortunately I can no longer access Pandora, as I reside outside the US. This is the message I was greeted with today:

"We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for most listeners located outside of the U.S."

So I asked Josh Catone (who lives on the East Coast of the US) to see what The Velvet Underground resulted in on Pandora. He advised:

1. Rock & Roll by The Velvet Underground
2. No Reply by the Beatles
3. Picture Book by The Kinks
4. Tattoo by The Who
5. Lisa Says by The Velvet Underground

That's a nice, diverse selection. Not as contemporary as last.fm though, with all the Pandora selections being from the 60's and 70's. I give last.fm better marks for 'knowing' that the Velvets influenced virtually every Alt rock band of the 80's, 90's and 21st century. Still, music is timeless and the Pandora songs were all excellent too. One other thing: you'd expect more than five songs before another VU song is played.

My rating: 4/5 (I didn't penalise them for not being available outside the US, as it isn't their fault; but not having anything from the 80's onwards loses them .5 of a point).

Yahoo Music

Alas at this point my experiment started to turn to custard. On the Yahoo Music homepage, I selected "Create radio station" - which took me to their LAUNCHcast Radio service. That gave me a long list of artists to choose from. Ignoring that, I went to the bottom of the page and entered VU as my sole option. Unfortunately... I got the following "Error 5":

Not OS X?! I checked out the Help file, which stated: "Currently, we do not support LAUNCHcast Radio for Macintosh or Firefox on Windows."

At which point I gave up on Yahoo Music. Rating: 0/5 for extreme compatibility incompetence.

iTunes Music Service

I opened my iTunes app and clicked 'Radio'. However, there is no way to enter an artist or search for one. It is a straight list of radio stations. A great selection though, so Apple gets points for that. But when you think online radio these days, it's recommendation and personalization services like last.fm and Pandora that are pushing the boundaries.

So my rating for iTunes music streaming: 2.5/5 (basic and comprehensive in music types, but not innovative).

Rhapsody

Rhapsody has a nice "listen FREE" search option at the top of its homepage, an excellent way to entice people to sign up for its premium service. I typed in "The Velvet Underground" and it took me to a useful bio page. At the bottom of that page I saw a link for The Velvet Underground Channel. Licking my lips, I tried to click on it. And again. And again!! But it was non-clickable for me. Why? Because the service is unavailable outside the US.

Such a promising service, but (as with Pandora) it shows what a legal minefield the online music world is currently - due to the record companies. It defeats the purpose of the World Wide Web if people outside the US can't use it. So I'll reluctantly pass on a rating for Rhapsody (and I didn't want to bother Josh a second time).

Conclusion

I also checked out FineTune and Last365, but neither offered much in the way of Velvet Underground personalization. So for me, it's no contest - last.fm wins, mostly because I can actually access it! But also it does deliver slightly better results than Pandora. I used to use Pandora a lot, back when it was available to me; and found then that last.fm was slightly more diverse and less likely to repeat songs. So last.fm has consistently been the leader in music streaming of the web 2.0 variety (i.e. with recommendations and personalization).

I think Apple could be more innovative with iTunes. You only need to look at The Filter, a playlist service we reviewed earlier this week, to see how iTunes data can be personalized.

And for the love of Lou, I hope that Pandora and Rhapsody can route around those damn record companies soon. I do hate it when Web innovation is blocked due to legal issues.

What do you think? Do the above 5 deliver with your favorite band?

Lou Reed pic by ptufts, at Web 2.0 Summit 2006