Seven Online Music Sources: The Standouts 
Home Theater Feature Articles Audio Related Articles
Written by Daniel Hirshleifer   
Thursday, 06 May 2010

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 Logo
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.

itunes logo
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 logo
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.

Pandora logo
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.


When Pandora started, you could listen to it for as long as you wanted without interruption. At a certain point they started running ads after every few songs. Of course, the RIAA and terrestrial radio stations flipped out about online streaming, and started targeting sites that were popular. The result is that Pandora now only allows 40 hours of free streaming per month. After that, you can pay $1 to listen for as long as you want for the rest of the month. Alternately, you can purchase a membership to Pandora’s premium service, which offers unlimited listening and higher sound quality, as well as more skips. Still, even with all this, Pandora feels woefully outdated in comparison to some of its competitors.

Last.fm Logo
Last.fm is a successor to Pandora, with a similar radio-style stream. You choose the artist, they play songs by that artist and similar musicians as well. Last.fm goes further into making the experience social. It keeps track of and publishes the songs you’ve recently listened to show to the people on your friends list. They’ve got a program called the Scrobbler that will also publish the songs you listen to on your computer so you can keep everyone as up to date as possible. The more song selections you put into the Scrobbler, the more personalized the recommendations you get. You can also connect Last.fm to your Twitter account, or download the app for the iPhone or Android phones, and even connect to your Xbox 360. However, Last.fm has the same basic problem as Pandora: You can’t choose exactly which songs you’re listening to at any given time. Last.fm does offer 30 second clips of individual songs, which is more than Pandora.

MOG logo
MOG.com is a more recent startup. The site also has a social atmosphere, prompting users to create profiles filled with widgets to provide info to each other. The site pushes known musicians to participate, creating profiles, making recommendations, and even playlists. At first, MOG was just a music news/reviews site and community, but they have also added a streaming music service. Unlike the more established streaming players, MOG offers a whole lot more options, but for a price ($5 a month, same as Napster). With MOG, you can in fact choose the songs you want to hear. Not just songs, but whole albums. The music player does pop out from the parent site, so you can control the music while you surf other sites.

The player has a slider that allows you to choose if you want to listen solely to the artist you’ve chosen, only artists
similar to the one you’ve chosen, or varying degrees of a mix. You can search for more music directly from the player, and the sound quality is excellent. For $5, it’s a good value. The only roadblocks are that the site itself isn’t always intuitive. It wants to do a lot but doesn’t make it easy for the user to do it in every case. More importantly, while the site offers a lot of independent music, its mainstream selections can sometimes be limited. In order to get it all, one would have to hold a membership to both Napster and MOG and switch between the two sites. If your tastes run more to the mainstream, then Napster would be the site for you. If you like to go off the beaten track, give MOG a try.

HD Tracks
Of all the sites listed above, none offers music at higher than 256 kb/s (and in the case of Pandora and Last.fm, significantly lower). A lot of people consider the sound quality on these sites to be too low. MP3 is the most common file type for music, but it’s not the only one. The convenience of the MP3 file format is that it compresses the sound file while still giving an accurate reproduction of the sound. However, when making an MP3, detail is lost. A wholly uncompressed sound file is a WAV file. It contains all the data from the original audio, but it is many times larger than an MP3. For those who wish to hear all the detail but don’t want to deal with files as large as WAV, there is another option: FLAC. FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec, and it compresses the file without removing any data.

The benefit is obvious: You get to hear your music in the highest possible quality without sacrificing all your space. However, there are also some downsides. While FLAC is smaller than WAV, it’s still larger than MP3. In addition, the format is far less supported than MP3, and thus isn’t nearly as user friendly. However, for those who have braved the wilderness of alternate audio codecs, there aren’t many sites available for purchasing DRM-free FLAC versions of songs and albums. HDTracks is one of them, and the site is representative of why FLAC isn’t widely used by the mainstream music downloading public.

HDTracks offers high quality and lossless downloads, but their selection is severely curtailed versus iTunes or Amazon. If you like classical music and modern jazz, then HDTracks will satisfy your needs. If, however, you like to listen to rock, pop, soul, R&B, hip-hop, rap, and other well known genres, you’re not going to find a ton to whet your appetite. And even if you do find something you’ll like, you’ll balk at the prices, which are routinely higher than iTunes or Amazon. And this isn’t even taking into account the fact that most people who use FLAC regularly aren’t squeamish about getting their music online for free.

Conclusion

There are plenty of online services for downloading or streaming music, with new ones popping up every day. Which one you like depends upon what your needs are. For standalone purposes, I use Amazon, both for their daily deals and the fact that they were DRM-free and high bitrate from the start. In terms of monthly services, I was surprised to discover that the most full-featured and cost-effective site was actually Napster. However, those who are constantly on the go may favor Pandora or Last.fm for their mobile capabilities. Whatever it is you want from your music, there are plenty of sites to choose from.






Like this article? Bookmark and share with any of the sites below.
Digg!Reddit!Del.icio.us!Google!StumbleUpon!Yahoo!Free social bookmarking plugins and extensions for Joomla! websites!
 
Joomla SEF URLs by Artio