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Saying Goodbye To LAUNCHcast

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I'm sitting at my computer. It's about 11:00 in the morning.

I'm listening to my streaming LAUNCHcast when I hear a familiar tune. It's "Dig" by the stalwart of early '90s alternative Christian music, Adam Again. However, it's not the dark acoustic and reverb and nasal voice of Gene Eugene – it's lighter acoustics and Dan Haseltine's gentler voice leading the harmonies of Jars of Clay.

I suddenly stare at my computer with a start – I didn't know they covered that!

And I have something to look up later.

Just as I did when I heard a Jimmy Eat World song I hadn't heard before last week – "Dizzy," from the Chase That Light album – and was so affected by the song that I just went out that night and – shock, horror – paid money at the record store for the album.

Just as I did nearly ten years ago when the song was a set of snare drums ahead of some thin electric guitars that heralded the start of Sarge's "Charms and Feigns," and I simply had to know who that woman singing that song was.

LAUNCHcast has been a wonderful old friend. And it's going away. By the time you read this, it may already be gone.

The guys who started up LAUNCH Media in Santa Monica in 1999 had quite a few good ideas. I remember hitting up their website several times in the formative days, watching music videos and reading music news. God knows how many people they sucked in – or nearly repelled away – with ads featuring a new video by a new starlet, Britney Spears (those were the days). But there was plenty of music-based content to keep your eyes trained.

And then there was LAUNCHcast.

Customizable radio.

Start rating your favorite artists, your favorite songs, your favorite genres. The scale goes from 0 to 100. Your station is then compared to other stations, especially those who rated similar songs high, and there would be an electronic hunt for songs that you might like. "Music that listens to you" is the promise.

Even if it had been a false promise, I might have still been hooked at the mere concept. It wasn't a false promise. The station began to figure out my favorite styles of music immediately, and select new stuff that I had never heard of and immediately loved. The programming of the widget was simply amazing.

I think we frequently overlook the kind of talent it requires to code an app like LAUNCHcast, and to make it work broadly for so many people. So many people whose names we'll never know deserve a rich, deep round of applause for this one. For my part: Todd Beaupre, Jeff Boulter, and every coder around you two who hacked the thing together, SAAA-LUTE.

It's hard to continue the story too far beyond this point without mentioning the raging battle between LAUNCH and the recording industry. Lawsuits began to crop up, using phrases like "unlicensed use of music" and "unapproved level of interactivity." I simply can't understand the threat behind allowing listeners of music to choose the music they listen to when they listen to a radio station. The volumes written about the RIAA's control-freak nature are simply too overwhelming for me to add anything of value to them. This isn't for them, anyway; too many people see the commodity and miss the riff, the groove, the killer lyric, the joy of listening to music.

The small community that grew up around LAUNCH – and I especially remember Todd Beaupre's simple username, "hitsman," and the wonderful adult alternative station he assembled that was a pretty essential "influencer" station – had no part of this. There were just a ton of really cool people who had wonderful and interesting tastes in music. As a late 20-something who was in a music-listening rut, so many of those stations were absolute revelations. I discovered Sunny Day Real Estate on LAUNCHcast. The Frames and Glen Hansard. The Promise Ring. Lincoln. American Football. Coheed & Cambria. I rediscovered many of my loves from college radio – Animal Logic, Poole, Kirsty MacColl, Hüsker Dü, and Roseanne Cash's amazing Interiors album.

Of course, when LAUNCH Media got bought out by Yahoo! in 2001, the small community was no longer small, and the attention paid wasn't small either. The paid subscriptions to listen to the station without ads and with an unlimited ability to skip songs you didn't want to hear was necessary – and, honestly, a small price to pay. And if I have one regret about my time on LAUNCH, it was holding out on the subscriptions as long as I did. It probably wouldn't have made a difference in the long haul, but cheapskates like me need to be less cheap-skatey in this economy – nothing proves a concept like the money it can make, and LAUNCHcast never really made enough.

I think a large part of the problem here can be summarized in who I am, who the majority of the American music-consuming public is, and why LAUNCHcast was so suited for me and not for them.

I'm a music geek.

The example at the front of this piece (unless you are one of my brothers who cut his fandom teeth on early '90s alternative Christian music – and if you are, I want to talk to you, desperately) very likely means nothing to you. You listen to music because it can form the background of your workday or your drive home.

There may be a few specific artists who you really enjoy deeply, who you're a fan of, but you don't listen to individual songs that intently. That's not a value judgement. That don't make me a better fan than you. Most people are content, if they like one Promise Ring song, with listening to any Promise Ring song, and vice-versa. They don't concern themselves with the subtle differences that make me adore Kelly Clarkson's "Low," but not really care about "Irvine," melt over "Sober," yet get tired of "Since U Been Gone," swoon over "Behind These Hazel Eyes," and just say "eh" over "My Life Would Suck Without You." A monolithic Kelly fan, I am not.

So when Yahoo! Music gets swallowed up by CBS Radio, and it's advertised as an exciting time for music fans because a host of pre-programmed stations are going to become available and the streaming quality will improve and you'll be able to listen to everything on Firefox, I can see where a garden variety music fan would buy in.

But I'm going to hate all those stations. They'll play a song that I love, and then they'll play a song that I hate, and this won't change. There was one thing, and only one thing on LAUNCHcast that was worth the price of admission for me, and that's precisely the thing that's going away – a programmable player on which I could rate stuff on a sliding scale and control not only which songs turned up, but HOW OFTEN they turned up.

A radio station, that you could program to play the songs you like.

I know, I keep coming back to it. It's still revolutionary in 2009. In 1999, it completely fractured my brain.

Pandora is nice, as far as it goes, but it won't fill the need for me. The algorithm isn't as good. I DON'T just either like a song or hate it – thumbs up or thumbs down is no good. I have shades of gray. I will listen to "Cowboys" by Counting Crows (another song I heard for the first time on LAUNCHcast, and completely fell for) any time it comes up. I'll listen to Big Head Todd and the Monsters' "Broken-Hearted Savior," but I don't want to hear it every day. I can take a Wilco song once every other month at most. And so on.

And I have an mp3 player, but I know all those songs already. I'd like to discover new music, too.

Of course, there's the great irony. Because of LAUNCHcast, I now have CD's by Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring and Coheed & Cambria and The Reputation. This is because I finally found out who that woman fronting Sarge was, and because LAUNCH helped me find Elizabeth Elmore's other band, too. To say nothing of that Jimmy Eat World album. See, because of LAUNCHcast, I did something unheard of in the year 2009.

I actually bought CD's. More CD's. Real, physical CD's.

You can tell me I don't get the new media revolution all you want. I don't care. I found my own way through it. I'm not a revolutionary by any stretch. I'm just a guy who likes music and wants to support the good stuff.

And I'm losing one of my best tools, a tool so familiar that I call it a wonderful old friend. It's just really, really sad.

I just heard one more new song that impressed me – a band called World Wide Spies, a song called "Philosophy." I rated it 90. There's no chance I'll see it come back around on this station before it dies, so the rating was in vain, but it was completely automatic, just like it has been for so much of the past ten years.

I suppose I can always visit their MySpace page.

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About Chuck Pearson

  • Corby

    Four years later and still no one has picked up the Launchcast idea. Was it that much of a failure?

  • Ray

    I still mourn the demise of LAUNCHcast; I really do. I feel a strong dislike toward Yahoo for having killed it.

    After LAUNCHcaat disappeared, I found Napster Canada, which wasn’t such a bad alternative. It also died after Rhapsody bought it.

    These days, I listen to last.fm and rdio.com. Together, they sort of replace LAUNCHcast.

    I envision a future where LAUNCHcaat makes it return! Perhaps the guys that created LAUNCHcast will start a new service and allow us to import our ratings from the old LAUNCHcast. (Yes, I was able to download all of my ratings using a utility supplied by one of the founders).

    Perhaps if we all use the powers of our imagination? 😉


  • CurlyGirlCa

    I’ve found Slacker to be the best alternative to my Launchcast Custom Radio. I tried to make Pandora work for me for months – just skipped and skipped. Tried Last.fm and FineTune and then 365radio also. The first time I listened to Slacker – listened for hours – barely skipped at all and I like music across all genres and decades (which is why I liked Yahoo). I finally broke down and am paying for the Slacker Plus station and customizing it as I write. ($48 USD/annually – worth every penny – got rid of my Sirius subscription.)

    So free Slacker is very good but the Plus subscription is like building your own Yahoo station again. And I’ve found very few songs not available and I liked some obscure music.

  • Ulli

    I wanted to pay for Launchcst Plus but since I lived in Canada I could not do so. What the music industry does not get is that personalizing the experience will generate more money for the artists and hence the problem. The big companies that control the artists want more money. They don’t care if some obscure band sells one more song, they want to sell millions of songs.

    Adding notifications and artist info to a Launchcast like tool would let the artist inform the listener when something new is coming out, what the artist listens to and when and where they would be performing. This is focused marketing at it’s best.

  • Esli

    I’m still able to listen to My Station, I feel a little bit guilty not to share it with you when I read al these sad comments, but I’m also scared that if I share the link that it will be cut off too. I don’t know how long it will last, and maybe it is because of my location (The Netherlands)? I just had to share it with you, should I share the link here?

  • Esli

    I Totally agree with Fred! Please oh great Google, pickup the Launchcast concept and make it even better!!

  • Missy

    Went to Jeff Boulter’s site to save my ratings and found that someone had mentioned Canada. So on a whim I went to the Canadian site for Yahoo Music, clicked “My Station” and it worked!!!

  • Missy

    I totally agree with your comments on Launch. Just had the desire to go to it the other day and found out all those preferences I spent years compiling were basically gone. I’m a French teacher and I found music on there that I then bought and played for my students, not to mention the stuff I personally liked and bought for myself. That daily opportunity to find new stuff easily is gone now, too.

    I totally understand your Kelly Clarkson story. I loved the stars that we could assign to a song or artist because a simple love it/hate it doesn’t say enough for a discerning music fan.

    I guess you really ‘don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.’

  • Numerius Negidius

    I absolutely loved the custom radio station in LAUNCHcast for the reasons stated above. Pandora and Slacker suck for the reasons stated above, too. I don’t just “love” or “hate” songs.

    Some songs I love so much I could hear them several times per day. Some songs I love enough to hear once a day. For others, once a week is about right.

    The apparent randomness in feeding these favorite songs is essential, as is the regular stream of new discoveries.

    iTunes doesn’t offer anything close to this. Even with a library of nearly 8000 songs, the playlists eventually get old, and the genius, while good, doesn’t automatically introduce new songs while I listen to current favorites.

    I earnestly hope the LAUNCHcast developers go somewhere else and re-create this most elegant and valuable service for true music lovers.

    Can you imagine if the LAUNCHcast functionality were somehow implemented right in iTunes?

    I would seriously subscribe to something like that – with little concern for cost.

  • brian

    Not to jinx things, but have you noticed LaunchCast “my station” is still working?

  • can’t we start a petition that google create google music or something
    yahoo had its chance

  • John Buchtel

    I’m glad you found Adam Again on Launch. Alas, they never quite got around to The 77s or The Choir (at least you could rate them even though they wouldn’t play in your player). But LaunchCast *did* have Over the Rhine, and the John Renbourn Group, and Lunasa, and so much else besides. Where else could you listen to a radio station and hear Bach, then blues, then alterna rock, then Celtic, then techno, then folk, and back again. Favorite songs followed by new songs beautifully matched to eclectic tastes: the programming of the algorithms *was* amazing.

    Thanks for this cogent, articulate posting, which speaks precisely everything I’ve been thinking and feeling since I learned I’d be losing “My Station” — and helps explain why Yahoo gave us no satisfactory explanation. I too am despondent. -jb

  • Mark Patton

    I have to add my laments to the list. As a longtime expat resident of Korea, one thing I miss terribly is American music culture. (There are Korean artists I like but my tastes are too eclectic to be satisfied by what’s available locally, and Korean radio stations that feature foreign music are too mainstream.) I’ve discovered all sorts of fantastic, whimsical, and even inspiring music through LAUNCHcast – often clicking right over to Amazon to order CDs after hearing a new artist or song (or new covers… until recently I had no idea that so many other artists were covering Talking Heads favorites…)

    And LAUNCHcast not only had music. I discovered comedians like Eddie Izzard, Mitch Hedberg (rest his soul), Craig Shoemaker(aka the Lovemaster) and many more.

    Fortunately I did go in and used Jeff Boulter’s code (see above) to download all my ratings, which are now safely archived in an Excel file on my computer.

    Music industry guys, WAKE UP. Your customers are growing increasingly sick of your control-freak attitude. Every time you take away one of the tools that lets us discover, comment on, and share information about new or obscure or just downright quirky music, you COST YOURSELVES MONEY. If we don’t know about it, we cant’ buy it. The fewer and narrower the channels are that we can use to find and enjoy music, the less diverse and less profitable the music industry will be.

  • Per Paul Moloney: Your ratings are not lost. They’re still on the site. And one of the original LAUNCH guys, Jeff Boulter, actually wrote code for you to get the ratings back. I used it. It’s dang easy to pull off.

    To all: I’ve been investigating LAUNCHcast alternatives. Slacker is interesting to me, but I’m not sure if it’s any more useful than Pandora, and potentially it’s more cumbersome. But I’m still working to see what’s out there. Stay tuned…and if you hit something you like, plug it right back here…

  • Paul Moloney

    I didn’t even realise Launchcast was gone until I went to the URL today and found myself redirected. Very annoying to realise that my custom station and all those ratings I made (I think I was into the thousands) are lost, like tears in the rain (thanks, Roy).


  • LC

    I too bought CDs based on songs and groups I heard for the first time on LaunchCast. DC radio is horrible for trying to find new music. LaunchCast was it for me. Now that it’s gone where will I find new music? The recording industry will turn out the bigger loser. Too bad.

  • sam smith

    I had over 120,000 songs rated. /sigh, thank you CBS, i guess customized radio just wasnt main stream enough.

  • Jrd

    I feel the same way as you do about this, I listen to Launchcast quite often and now My Station has ceased to exist.

  • Roger Snyder

    Never heard it, since it doesn’t work on Macs. Oh well.

  • I can’t believe you gave a shout to Adam Again! Gene Eugene was way ahead of his time.

    As far as LAUNCHcast, I agree with everyone here. It’s the saddest news of a venture going under in a long– wait, ever. LAUNCHcast was the best way to find new music. Ironically, as you have noted, I will buy less new music now because I won’t have an easy way to find it.

  • Eran

    Thanks for expressing these shared feelings.

    I’ve been walking around mourning the looming loss of my Launchcast station for the last two months, since they announced it, like someone would mourn the loss of a beloved pet… I’ve spent so much time training it, programming my own player around it, and enjoying it.

    You described the sad truth perfectly – it takes a geek to want to invest so much time in rating and enjoying a Launchcast station. There just aren’t enough geeks like us out there to justify Launchcast. Extremely sad, but true.

  • Very well said. I feel the way you feel. I found Launchcast in 2000 and loved it for the same reasons you did: the algorithm, the granularity of the rating scale, the library, the ad-free option, and the discovery of new music mixed in with the familiar.

    I also loved the clash of styles that was uniquely my own. Where else will I hear a playlist like this (just as an example): the B-52s, a Scott Joplin rag, Katy Perry, Little Richard, Erasure, Benny Goodman, Joe Satriani, Johnny Cash, the Kaiser Chiefs, Asia, and Dido, with a little bluegrass and be-bop thrown in? The algorithm let everyone create their own unique mix, the complete antithesis of any possible pre-programmed station.

    I guess I must be a music geek, too. In that case, I’m happy to be one.

  • i’m the brother and slacker can be found at http://www.slacker.com

    it’s not going to give the fine incremental rating capabilities that launchcast gave you but i enjoy it.

  • Joanne

    Great post! You really summed it up so perfectly. The agony that so many of us long-term LaunchCast users are feeling right now. The fact that it was a great tool for introducing us to new music that yes, we actually went out and BOUGHT. And why was it such a great tool? Because it allowed for all those “shades of gray” – a feature that the competition(LastFM, Pandora, Slacker) still lacks.

    Yes, still revolutionary 10 years later. And as a programmer myself, I really have to tip my hat to the developers of Lanchcast. Many times I sat and wondered how they did it. It was truly, truly amazing.

    I realize now, far too late, that I would gladly pay more for my personal Launchcast radio station than I would for my cable tv service, which is still “57 channels of nothing on”.

    Chuck, if you find a decent replacement, please share it here with your fellow “music geeks” and Launchcast castaways.

  • I didn’t post this to find my brothers and sisters in LAUNCH, but I’m happy that’s going to be a side benefit.

    As regards Slacker: Haven’t, no. If you’re going to suggest an alternative, please share a link. Of course, LAUNCHcast made it ten years because of the backing of Yahoo! (regardless of how little Yahoo! actually supported the thing in its latter years); who’s to say a non-Pandora alternative is going to survive two weeks? The same legal difficulties and licensing demands that dogged LAUNCH/Yahoo! are still there…

  • Brian

    Nice work, and I share your grief to the nth degree. My brother suggests Slacker may be a decent alternative, but I have yet to check it out. Have you?

  • Tom

    I loved Launch mostly because of that little red “X”. I could elimiate all the crap that I hate. It’s sad to see Launch go, but all good things must come to an end, right? I got to rating #71,999 on my station yesterday, and that’s how it’s going to stay. To quote the greatest movie ever, “Goodbye my loooooove”.