We wrote yesterday about what we were expecting from Twitter’s much-anticipated new music application, based on the tidbits of information that were already available. It turns out that the application arrived earlier than we expected, launching this morning, and we’ve spent the last couple of hours playing around with it. So what is it, what does it do, and most importantly, is it any good? Read on to find out.
The first thing you need to know is that you absolutely 100% need to have a Spotify or Rdio account if the service is going to be any use to you at all. If you have neither, all you hear is iTunes store previews, which doesn’t exactly make for a satisfactory listening experience (unless you’re one of those people who actually likes it when DJs cut off songs after one verse, in which case, knock yourself out). This at least answers our questions yesterday as to whether Twitter Music (sorry, #music) has invested in its own library of music: it hasn’t. It also doesn’t appear to draw on any music you may actually have on your device — it’s strictly streaming only, which means you’re shit out of luck on the subway.
So, what we have here is basically a glorified client for Spotify and Rdio. First impressions of the UI are good: the application itself is slick and responsive, and the design is beautiful. One quirk that’s going to take some getting used to: the application refers to artists by their Twitter handles, not their actual names, which is fine in the case of @catpower or @frank_ocean but less useful in the case of @s_c_ (Jay-Z) and @sspu (Silversun Pickups). But pretty or not, the question is: why would you use this instead of just using Spotify or Rdio?
The answer, Twitter Music would have you believe, is in its charts and discovery algorithms. The application gives you four charts to choose from: Popular (“Music trending in the iTunes store”), Emerging (“Hidden talent found in the Tweets”), Suggested (“Artists you might like”), and #nowplaying (“Tweeted by people you know.”) Twitter are rolling all their dice on this, because that’s all this application does: it doesn’t play your own library, and you can’t choose directly from your Spotify or Rdio accounts, making it like a sort of plug-in Pandora.
So, the charts. Popular is currently Psy, David Guetta, Paramore, and… well, we needn’t go on. On the assumption that you’re using this for discovering new music, as opposed to a sort of fancy replacement for iTunes Jukebox, the Emerging chart is of more interest. It’s here that we really get to evaluate the We Are Hunted algorithm, and… well, it’s weird. There’s certainly a bunch of stuff we’re not familiar with. But there’s also weirdly mainstream stuff: does anyone really think Low (#9), Frank Turner (#27), Beach House (#47) or Grizzly Bear (#109) are unheralded up-and-comers? (The chart’s also amusingly Australian-heavy, perhaps reflecting the site’s origins: highly tipped bedroom producer Flume appears at #13, just ahead of dire Brisbane indie-poppers Ball Park Music at #18 and roots lifestyle choice The Cat Empire at #22. None of these bands are actually very good, but hey.)
As far as we can tell, there’s also apparently no way to customize this chart to your tastes. We’ve been talking to others who’ve downloaded the application, and the Emerging chart is the same for everyone. This means that it’s basically a mishmash of stuff you may or may not like, and there’s no way to tell Twitter Music that you don’t want any more post-hardcore or coastal roots lifestyle music in your feed. It’s determined entirely by reference to We Are Hunted’s social aggregation algorithm, so given how diverse the Internet’s music tastes are, it’s definitely a case of sorting the good from the bad/awful/irrelevant. If you want personalized recommendations, you head to…
The Suggested chart! To access this, you sign in via Twitter, and the application’s algorithms go to work on the music you’ve tweeted about. Clearly, how useful this is will depend on how much you tweet about music — using that Last.fm weekly tweet thing will probably help a lot here. Twitter, no doubt, would love you to tweet everything you play (and the application will happily do this for you). Unsurprisingly, your correspondent tweets about music a fair bit, and the recommendations the application’s come up with for me are in the general area of my tastes, if not exactly spot on: the top recommendation was Cloud Nothings, who are, y’know, OK, followed by Animal Collective (yes), Dirty Projectors (no), Purity Ring (sort of), and Gold Panda (yes).
One subtlety here: just because you tweet about a band doesn’t necessarily mean you like them. You might be going on a 140-character rant about how much you hate them. We remember reading that We Are Hunted’s software claimed to be able to tell whether people were discussing music in a positive or negative light, but clearly it’s not perfect: my suggested chart included Kitty Pryde (presumably on the basis of this). It also included Spaceghostpurrp, curiously, about whom I’ve never tweeted, but I’ve written a lot, and not favorably.
And finally, there’s the #nowplaying chart, which aggregates what people you follow are playing. Given that Spotify and Rdio both already do this, there’s not a lot to say here, beyond the fact that an awful lot of companies are rolling the dice on you actually caring what your friends are playing. Our entirely anecdotal feeling is that people find the whole “social” concept a lot less exciting than the companies who think it’s a route to untold riches, but whatever — if it works for you, go right ahead.
So would we use this? Probably not, to be honest. The thing with a new product is that it has to be significantly better than its competitors to convince people to switch. Twitter Music is pretty, sure, but its recommendation algorithms and the lack of a simple player mean that it’s nowhere near compelling enough to make it a first-choice music-playing application. At best, it’s a sort of Spotify/Rdio-powered competitor to Pandora, which isn’t a terrible thing to have on the market, but not exactly the game-changer people have been anticipating.