Of all the forms of media, music is the one that has most completely melded with the internet. In fact, getting music online has become so ubiquitous that CD sales have significantly declined and, Record Store Day notwithstanding, online has become the main source for music purchasing. Online radio is also quickly surpassing terrestrial radio, with all sorts of options popping up for getting music on demand without downloading any files. While HD Radio is trying to make regular radio new again, it does require new hardware and doesn’t seem to be making significant inroads. So, like it or not, music is here to stay. Now that the internet is the first stop for getting your music, where does one go? We’re taking a look at the most popular and well-known services to see what they have to offer.
Napster is the mother of all music services. For those who don’t know or may not remember, Napster was the first big file sharing service, allowing users to upload their music to a central server and have other users download it. It was easy to use and due to the vast selection of users there was a lot of rare music to be found. However, the way the system was set up, with all the files going to a central location, opened the company up to prosecution for storing files that violated copyright law. The service disappeared, only to be replaced by a series of poor imitators until torrents took off. Now the company is back, trying to cash in on the brand name to offer legitimately purchased tracks.
Napster (now owned by Best Buy) offers the current system: Pay $5 a month (in 3 or 12 month batches), and you get unlimited streaming and credits to download DRM-free MP3’s. You get 1 credit per dollar, which at first appears to mean you get one song per credit, but some songs are less than a dollar, and some more. Napster is in a unique position within the marketplace, being the only site that offers a subscription-based music stream along with for-purchase MP3’s in the same integrated service. The streaming selection is robust, and offers amenities such as automix (where the site creates a mix of similar artists based on a first choice by the user) and boasts offerings from the latest Billboard chart toppers.
Like any streaming service, they can’t get licensing for all the music in the world, but unless you’re into incredibly obscure offerings, you’ll find something to listen to here. The only serious issue I had was that the controls were fixed to the Napster page in the beta preview for their new redesign, and you couldn’t pop them out so you could leave them visible while browsing other webpages. Aside from this, Napster has managed to rise from the ashes and become a notable service once again.
If Napster revealed the power of the internet as it applies to music, then iTunes monetized it. In 2001, Apple released iTunes as a proprietary music player and a base for syncing iPods, which were released in the same year. In 2003, Apple opened up the iTunes store, which was available directly through the iTunes program and allowed the user to download songs quickly and easily and then put it right on their iPods. Quickly, iTunes became the leading source for purchasing music online, a position it still holds today. Initially, the songs being offered were low-bitrate and infested with Apple’s DRM.
Today, however, iTunes provides DRM-free tracks at 256 kb/s constant bitrate. And, being the number one provider on the market means that iTunes has the ability to offer all sorts of exclusive tracks, either tacked on to the end of albums, or in the form of entirely exclusive releases, often live. In addition, iTunes offers access to podcasts, and you can purchase audio books, movies, and apps for the iPhone and iPad. Apple has also offered a new product called iTunes LP, which offers an album with extra tracks, videos, and an interactive UI that simulates the feeling of looking at the large size liner notes on vinyl albums. Apple has done a great job of making iTunes usable, accessible, and cheap. Songs are usually under a dollar, and albums are generally under $10. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve already used iTunes.
Amazon.com is the world’s largest online retailer. Beginning as a book store, the site soon branched out, offering all sorts of items, from power tools to cameras to video games and more. Unbeknownst to some, Amazon also offers MP3 downloads. Before iTunes went DRM free and higher quality on the sound, Amazon was offering DRM-free, 256 kb/s downloads. Their prices are comparable to iTunes, and their free downloader sends files (complete with metadata) straight to that program. The real draw of Amazon is their 50 for $5 and Deal of the Day specials. Every day, Amazon drops the price of an album down to between $2 and $4. The deals are varied, and there are plenty of great albums to grab at rock bottom prices. Similarly, every month, they price fifty albums at $5, offering a good mix of classic rock, modern pop, and everything in between. Checking the site again, it appears they may have upped the number of albums to 100. Amazon is an excellent alternative to iTunes, and often the best place to get digital music at the cheapest prices.
The music world was turned upside down once by music downloads. Once the RIAA struck a blow against Napster and iTunes legitimized online sales, the next big revolution in online music was streaming. Terrestrial radio stations had messed with online streams of their broadcasts, but that gave online listeners nothing more than what the big music companies wanted played on the radio. Pandora was the first site to become successful with online streaming on demand, where you could choose what you wanted to listen to. It’s not truly on demand, though. The way Pandora works is that you choose an artist or a song, and the system chooses artists that share similarities with what you’ve chosen, then gives you a radio station where they choose the songs. If you don’t like a song, you can indicate it, and the site will skip to the next one (although you can only do so many of those in an hour), and eventually the site will cater itself to your tastes.