I’m going to begin by saying that I haven’t gotten into online music for any length of time before being asked to review Radical.fm. The longest I used one was when I turned on iTunes’ Genius and Ping – and forgot about them. To be honest I prefer the old-school methods of music discovery: be it borrowing a CD of obscure live tracks from a friend; using an app like Shazam while out and about; or even more traditionally, the radio.
That being said, I can see where Radical.fm wants to go, but it’ll be a while before it gets there.
When I received my beta invitation, the header of the email touted Radical.fm’s superiority over the big players like Pandora and Spotify. Given the latter’s much-anticipated entrance into the United States, it’s hard to see the niche in which Radical fits.
The selection in the beta is limited, but it has seemed to expand as I’ve been using the service. I tried a stream-of-consciousness search to see how varied the library is.
Paul Simon – Mother and Child Reunion (search returned only a live track)
Jack Johnson – The Horizon Has Been Defeated
The Police – Message in a bottle
B.B. King – 3 O’Clock Blues
Robert Johnson – Cross Road Blues
The Rolling Stones – Sympathy for the Devil
The list was pretty impressive, showing me versions of “Sympathy for the Devil” by artists I wasn’t aware covered it (Blood, Sweat and Tears!). However, I hit a wall with the next song in my search: “Paint it Black” as covered by The Tea Party. It was a fairly popular song a few years ago, but I suppose that on a global scale the band may simply not be well known. I figured the omission could be addressed by the CRTC’s (Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission) draconian rules, or simply a qualm with record labels. A search for further Canadian artists turned up mixed results. There was a decent showing from The Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, and a healthy dose of Rush. A few acts like I Mother Earth, Sloan, or The Trews are simply nonexistent.
Dipping into other genres I experienced the same hit-and-miss searches as I had in Rock. I was pleased with the healthy results returned by entering Sugarhill Gang, George Clinton (with and without Parliament Funkadelic) and N.W.A. I even came across a very unfortunate version of “Baby Got Back” by Vanilla Ice which, until recently, I was blissfully unaware of. My final hip-hop search was a surprise: nerdcore hip-hop artists MC Frontalot and Optimus Rhyme had a handful of tracks between them – more than I expected.
This is a beta version, and it shows. Radical.fm is definitely built on some good bones, though. The UI is clean and unobtrusive, with the only ad space (so far) is relegated to a huge quarter-screen-filling banner to the right of the main panel. On login you’re confronted with the simple interface. Across the top you have your basic music controls: pause, play/next, and a microphone icon representing a voice recording/be-a-DJ feature that wasn’t available at the time of writing. Surrounding the controls you have a volume slider and elapsed/remaining time indicator. To the right of the controls you find the area of the the UI I personally spent the most time in. It shows the song currently playing (with expandable album art), options to play more, less, or block songs by the current artist, and finally a “Buy” link. Clicking this little shopping cart gives you the option to purchase the song from various outlets (at this time, only Amazon and iTunes). The same options are available for the previously-played song, but I found myself frustrated that I couldn’t go back any further than one song. Basically, if you didn’t catch the name of that band you liked that played two songs previously, you’re out of luck. Radical.fm does fancy itself a radio station, and that part of the real radio experience is replicated perfectly.
Below the main controls is the other place you’ll be spending all your time: the slider board. This is where you can create custom stations (like mine, “The Biology of Rock”, an attempt to explore the roots of rock throughout history). You’re given up to ten genres to dump into your very own station. I chose everything from “Punk” to “Funk”, “Old Rap/Hip-Hop” to “Alt Rock”, and…well, it isn’t exactly chock-full of variety. You can pick from a handful of rock eras, a few hip-hop and reggae options, and a sampling of house, trance, techno, and the like. There are some strange options, such as “Love Songs”, “Teen Pop”, “Today’s Teen Hits” , and “Recent Teen Hits”. In a search I came across both Leadbelly and Howlin’ Wolf, yet there isn’t a selectable “Blues” genre. It isn’t exactly “niche”. I imagine this will come with time, but I can’t see the necessity of three teen-centric genres – but maybe Beiber Fever hasn’t taken hold of me…yet.
The genres themes are assigned to sliders, which is probably the neatest feature of the service. Feel like more dirty power rock in your day? Slide the 80s Rock toggle to ten (eleven?) and get your Bon Jovi fix. A few hours later you’re tired of Poison and Queensryche (though I don’t see how that’s possible), so you take that slider down to three and drag your “Classic Pop” to seven and “Punk” to nine. Now you’re getting NOFX chased by Men At Work, which is a startling, but refreshing experience.
Another option for the slider board is custom playlist creation. This is where the generally user-friendly UI takes a dip. You (strangely) have two search boxes: one for artist, one for song names. The search does provide a suggest feature below as you type, which is nice considering how very picky the engine can be (“BB King” doesn’t show up, but “B.B. King” does). You search for a song and add it to your playlist. It’s straightforward and bare-bones. The simplicity has a few drawbacks, however. Don’t expect iTunes-style artist information here: you get song name, artist, length, and a link to purchase the particular song. You can then – click by slow click – scoot the chosen songs up and down within your playlist, or remove them entirely. Another issue with this format is the inability to add multiple songs in one go. Something we just expect in apps from iTunes to Gmail and everything between simply doesn’t exist in the beta. I really hope this basic feature makes it into the final build, because this oversight really brings down the experience for me. I don’t mind being obsessive-compulsive with my own music library, but I really can’t get behind going song-by-song with a service like this.
The last major feature of Radical.fm is the Radcast. This portion of the service lets you listen to other users’ stations and interact with them. You can “Steal” users’ stations – a bold word to use in the age of torrents, piracy, and the definition of ‘free’. Once you’ve “stolen” a station or playlist, you can either simply listen to their stream, or add it to your own. The interface of the Radcast reminds me strongly of Mplayer, the ancient PC gaming and chat service from the turn of the century – in both aesthetics and operation. Take from that what you will. As someone who hasn’t been in a chat room since the days when modems screamed at you before logging in, this area didn’t really capture my attention. Granted, chat isn’t the point of this service – music is – but it just seems a little frivolous.
Radical.fm wants to be in your browser at home, at work, and in your pocket. The newest promotional video (which may draw more attention from the Beatles’ legal team than the services’ merits) states that they’ll be rolling out a mobile version. They’re promising iOS, Android, and BlackBerry apps “soon”. Having this service on the road would be a major plus for them. Strangely, the example they use for their multi-user station synchronization is a group of people jogging together. The idea is that they can all listen to the same station as they go along on their run, all happily hitting the pavement presumably in time with the music. Now, I don’t ever see myself in this situation, but if I can listen, in real-time, to the same song my friend in Sweden is listening to, that’s definitely a unique experience. Or you can do as I did: pick a random user and give their station a listen. Going from Sum 41′s “Fat Lip” to Barbara Streisand’s “People” is…different.
At its core, Radical.fm is a solidly built service that’s a little rough around the edges. It is clearly still a beta, and I feel it’ll hang on to that prefix for a while. It has some easy fixes to make and I’m going to keep checking back to see if their catalogue expands. If it does, and the mobile app deliver on their promise of real-time synched streaming, Radical.fm will be up there as a major contender in the industry.
Easy-to-use main UI.
Large library for a beta run.
Excellent sound quality.
Baffling genre selection.
Difficult playlist creation.
Pop-up confirmation/notifications nearly every time you make a change.
I believe that Radical.fm has promise. As it grows and expands its library and irons out a few (easily fixable) bugs on its way out of beta, Radical.fm has a chance to be a major player on the streaming music scene. With innovate features like the genre-specific slider board and promise of real-time sync across multiple devices and platforms, Radical.fm does indeed set itself apart from the pack. A few features remain to be implemented (notably, the ability to broadcast your own voice live via your station), but for now it has a strong showing with what its got. For users wanting an easy-to-use and hands-free custom streaming experience, Radical.fm is sure to be music to their ears.
Final Verdict: Recommended