New Slacker On-Demand Service Worth the Wait

Mari Silbey —  May 17, 2011 — 9 Comments

Slacker WebPlayer-BrowseStation-TopSongs

I’ve been itching for the new Slacker on-demand music service to launch since last fall, and today the new app is (finally!) ready to go on the web, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, and Android devices. The whole Slacker experience has been overhauled, but the biggest change comes in the new Premium service tier. For $9.99 a month (or FREE for a limited time at www.facebook.com/SlackerRadio), Slacker Premium customers can now access individual songs and albums on demand. While this may not sound revolutionary, it is when you consider how Slacker implements its on-demand service. With a radio front end, users can find artists and songs simply by tuning to a station and either saving favorite selections as they play, or filtering through station content to find music worth storing. Naturally you can also search for any specific song and play it immediately, but the bigger benefit comes from station-based music discovery. Ask me what song I want to hear, and I may stumble over an answer. But play something I like, and I’ll add it to my personal playlist in a heartbeat.

After using Slacker Premium in beta for the last few weeks, I can happily say that the new service was worth the wait. I’ve only tested it on a computer so far, but I’ll be trialling it further on mobile devices in the near future, and the iPad video demo looks promising. From my own experience, the app is easy to use, and the ability to play favorite songs ad nauseum is addictive. I’ve never been one to collect music, so just being able to access songs when I want without having to make a commitment to buy is compelling. Even better, I don’t have to go out and search for music. If there’s a radio station I like, I can see the top 50 artists and songs on that station and jump around or create my own playlists at will. Stations, albums, and individual songs are also all cacheable for offline playback.

I spoke with Slacker CEO Jim Cady last week, who had a few things to say about where Slacker has been, and where it’s headed. First, when I queried him about Pandora’s continued success, he pointed out that Slacker’s music library is eight times as big, featuring more than eight million songs – and that’s not even getting into the different feature sets. And when I asked about some of the new cloud music services debuting (notably from Amazon and Google), Cady pointed out that those offerings are more like music storage lockers rather than Internet radio. Slacker not only lets you customize your own stations, it also has dozens of hand-crafted stations put together by professional DJs.

Cady also talked about what’s on the roadmap for Slacker now that the on-demand service has launched. I’ve asked about adding more song- and playlist-sharing features for years, and Cady assures me they’re coming. He also hinted at upcoming integrated car radio options, and more news and sports content. The ABC News station Slacker added a short while ago has proven quite popular, and the company announced back in March that customizable ESPN content is on its way.

For those who don’t want to pay for their online music, Slacker is still offering a free service tier. Or, for a slight upgrade to $3.99 per month, you can cut out the ads, and add unlimited song skipping, as well as caching, and access to song lyrics. My beloved Squeezebox is still supported, and an implementation for Sonos is currently in QA, and should be available in the next few weeks. Currently Slacker claims more than 25 million listeners. I expect that number to increase with the new service launch.

9 responses to New Slacker On-Demand Service Worth the Wait

  1. Great write-up and very exciting.
    By the end of the year music lovers may have a good problem – the battle of the music options will be huge. This just adds to the pressure on Spotify to get up and running and really turns up the heat in SiriusXM for their Sat 2.0 launch. (I’m not too confident in the latter)

  2. I think I’ll give Slacker another try, but last time I paid for them, I wasn’t a fan of their sound quality, at least on mobile. Pandora has them beat, offering the “high quality” (192kbps) option on mobile and desktop. I don’t know what Slacker uses, but last time I tried it, it wasn’t nearly as good sounding as Pandora.

  3. Slacker would rather avoid a bitrate discussion, which I can understand as it’s not always apples-to-apples. But they did want to convey that they use AAC Pro V2 encoding for mobile streaming. They also wanted to convey that their audio sound quality should compare favorably to Pandora, perhaps exceeding it, even – but that may depend on song or signal. Beyond sound quality, I happen to prefer Slacker’s station/genre approach. I assume you can try them out again for free and decide for yourself, tho.

    My subscription expired a few weeks ago. BUT with this news of Sonos support, I’m much more likely to re-up. Although the new on-demand functionality is probably overkill for my simple needs.

  4. I used to have one of Slacker’s old hardware radios, and really liked it a lot, much better than Pandora (human thought will always surpass algorithms). But now that it’s just a client, there are just too many upsells. You can’t launch or close its Android app without a nag. If you want to change one of its settings, the settings screen opens to an upsell. I opted out of email contact and still got upsells emailed to me. Pandora seems content to let me choose my free level of service and send me the ads it thinks I want to hear.

    I’m not ready to uninstall Slacker yet, but I’m sure not going to upgrade to a new version that adds yet another layer of upsells, either.

  5. @Nicholas — Slacker now has an option to turn on higher-quality streaming in Settings.

    I signed up for free month promotion just now but couldn’t add it to my existing account since I paid for it via App Store (actually, can’t upgrade to Premiere period from online). I might be able to upgrade to Premiere from my iDevice, but Slacker app says it has to be done from original device subscription was purchased on, so now I have to go dig out my old iPod Touch… Oh, growing pains.

    So I just ended up setting up another account just to test out Premiere features. Unfortunately, Slacker’s service must be getting hammered because there are “data errors” when playing back via the web (on my work network) and on my iPod Touch (via iSpot). Hopefully, they’ll get everything figured out — I played with iPad app last night when it just hit the App Store (after midnight, I think) and things were working very smoothly.

  6. P.S. As someone who pays for both Slacker and Pandora, I like Slacker a lot more (even have their hardware player… don’t use it anymore since I can cache stations on my iPod Touch). And, all things considered, their entry-level Plus subscription is worth paying for.

  7. Glad to see the coverage of Slacker; this new service tier looks really nice!

  8. So, minor update: The free Slacker 3.0 no longer shows you the next artist, as 2.0 did. It’s now another upsell: UPGRADE TO SEE NEXT ARTIST.

    So I gave up. I’d loaded Slacker 3.0 on my tablet to give it a quick try, saw that, decided I no longer wanted to deal with these hucksters, and went to Market to delete the app.

    I couldn’t!

    Slacker 3.0 seems to be undeletable via the Market. I had to go to Application Settings to force quit it, clear data, and delete it from there.

    Just a heads up. I turned a lot of friends onto Slacker back during the radio and Flash UI days, always thought their stations were way better than Pandora’s channels, but they’re now hovering near the sleazeball level in my world.

  9. I have both Pandora and Slacker and to me, with a pair of Sennheiser HD 280s with an Fiio E5 amp and my iPhone 4s — songs sound a lot better on Slacker vs Pandora. This is the case on my PC as well. Might just be me but for someone who paid for quality, that’s the deal breaker for me. From what I can see, both promise 192-312kbps but nothing is official and is based on “network.”

    @ Bob S. — You realize that your wireless carrier is the one putting these apps on your phone and preventing you from removing them right (if you’re using Android)? Verizon does this to Android. That’s 1 main reason why I went to the iPhone – I don’t like paying for something and having adware shoved down my throat. And yes, I rooted for 3 years (Moto Droid – HTC thunderbolt), just got tired.

    I’m tempted to do Mog (320kbps promised) but was stopped at the Facebook login. No, not happening. Why?

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