Back in the day, there were only two ways to listen to recorded music: You could turn on the radio and hear whatever song happened to be playing on your local station, or you could go down to the record store and buy a copy of your favorite songs on a vinyl disc.
Today, all this sounds terribly quaint. While it’s still possible to buy physical recordings on CD or vinyl, their sales are now outstripped by digital downloads, according to a report from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). And Nielsen, a major consumer-research firm, reports that even sales of digital music downloads are on the decline, as Americans get more and more of their tunes through music streaming services.
All this technology hasn’t made music any cheaper though. According to Nielsen, the average consumer now pays $109 per year to listen to music. Live music accounts for about half of that, so that means about $55 per year goes toward music recordings, downloads, and streaming services. However, savvy consumers can get most of their digital music for free – leaving more money in their budgets to enjoy a live concert or two.
Streaming Music Online
Streaming services are arguably the most popular way to listen to music. With a streaming music service, you don’t own the songs you play, but on the plus side, you’re not limited to the number of tracks you can fit on your phone or MP3 player.
The RIAA identifies three main sources through which you can stream music: Internet radio stations, subscription services, and non-subscription sites that play tunes on demand. However, some streaming music sources, such as Spotify, blur the boundaries between these categories.
Internet radio stations work the same way as old-school radio: They select songs, and you listen to whatever pops up. However, instead of having just three or four stations in range to choose from, you can choose from a huge list of specialized stations that suit particular musical tastes. Also, if you hear a song you really can’t stand, you can just skip it – something you can’t do when you listen over the airwaves.
Some services take this customization to its logical extreme by creating personalized stations to fit a user’s tastes. Instead of a live DJ choosing which tune to play next, algorithms select songs for you based on which artists and music you say you like.
The majority of Internet radio stations are paid for by advertising, although some let you upgrade to an ad-free experience for a small monthly fee. Also, paid versions of streaming services let you skip songs more frequently – users of free accounts are generally limited to six skips per hour.
- Pandora. Started in 2000, Pandora is one of the top streaming sites on the Internet. Its music-picking algorithm, known as the “Music Genome Project,” analyzes the songs you like best and then presents you with other songs that share similar qualities. According to Digital Trends, Pandora’s collection isn’t terribly large – fewer than one million tracks – but its algorithm is “pretty smart” at picking out songs to match your taste. You can have as many as 100 customized “stations” on your account, and you can listen on a huge range of devices – both mobile and at-home.
- Slacker. Unlike Pandora, Slacker doesn’t customize its selections to fit your preferences. Instead, a free account gives you access to hundreds of stations, curated by experts from a collection spanning millions of songs. You can also search for specific songs, artists, genres, and even topics. In addition to music stations, Slacker includes channels for news, sports, and talk. Slacker runs on most mobile devices, as well as at home, in the car, and on the Web.
- Rdio. Rdio combines the features of Pandora and Slacker. You can listen to its numerous curated stations “based on artists, genres, and moods,” or you can create your own personalized station, which the site calls “You FM.” Upgrading to a paid version of the service not only removes ads and skip limits but also lets you choose specific songs from its catalog of over 20 million and listen to them on demand – even when you’re not online. You can listen to Rdio on your phone, tablet, or home computer, and you can play it through streaming media devices like Roku and Chromecast.
- Last.Fm. At Last.fm, you can select stations by searching for particular artists and genres that interest you. To enhance your experience, you can download the site’s Scrobbler app, which keeps track of the music you listen to from your own collection and transmits that information to Last.fm. The site matches up your musical preferences with those of its other listeners to offer you personalized recommendations. You can listen to Last.fm on the Web or through its mobile app.
- iTunes Radio. Users of Apple devices can listen to an assortment of DJ-curated stations for free through iTunes. They can also create their own custom stations and modify existing stations to fit their tastes. One caveat, though: iTunes Radio doesn’t run on some older computers and devices. When I tried to open it on my old Mac, I received the prompt: “iTunes Radio requires OS X 10.7 or later.”
A subscription streaming music service is like a library filled with songs that users can check out, but not keep permanently. Most subscription services pay their bills by charging a fixed monthly rate in exchange for unlimited listening. However, many of them also offer free accounts that are funded by advertising.
- Spotify. Named the best all-round music streaming service by Techlicious, Spotify blurs the boundaries between an Internet radio station and a streaming service. It lets you create personalized stations based on specific selections, just like Pandora. However, it also lets you build a personal library of songs chosen from its millions of tracks and use it to create your own playlists. You can share your playlists through social media and listen to playlists created by others, including friends, performers, and celebrities. Spotify runs on both Android and iOS devices, as well as over the Web.
- Songza. Techlicious names Songza, a music service owned by Google, as its favorite curated music site. On Songza, you can’t search for specific songs or artists. Instead, you choose from its wide-ranging collection of curated playlists, which are arranged into groups by musical period, genre, mood, and activity. For instance, when I checked out the site on a Tuesday afternoon, it offered me playlists for “Having Fun at Work” and “Focusing (No Lyrics).” Songza lets you bookmark your favorite playlists and rate individual playlists with a thumbs up or down, which helps Songza’s “Concierge” feature recommend selections just for you. The Songza site does not list its system requirements, but according to Techlicious, the service can run on iOS, Android, Blackberry 10, and Windows devices, as well as on desktop computers.
- Amazon Prime Playlists. If you have an Amazon Prime subscription, you can enjoy playlists curated by experts through Amazon Prime Playlists. The site has hundreds of playlists chosen from over a million songs, which you can browse by artist, genre, decade, or mood. The site also recommends playlists for you based on music you’ve bought through Amazon in the past. If you hear a track you particularly like, you can click a link to buy it.
Some streaming music services don’t have free, ad-sponsored versions, but they do offer free trials. These give you a chance to test out the service and decide whether it’s worth coughing up the cash for a monthly subscription.
- Google Play Music All Access. Signing up for a 30-day free trial of Google Play Music All Access admits you to a library of more than 30 million songs that you can use to build your own playlists or design a custom radio station. You can also select existing playlists to fit specific moods and activities – such as “Morning Workout” or “Chardonnay Soiree.” In addition to streaming music, this site doubles as a cloud-based backup for your own collection: You can upload your entire iTunes library, including your playlists, for free, and listen to it from anywhere in the world. A final perk of the site is that it gives you access to the beta version of YouTube Music Key, which lets you watch music videos on YouTube ad-free. Google Play is available as an app for Android or iOS, and it can also stream music to Chromecast or Sonos devices in your home. Cost: $9.99 per month after free trial.
- Beats Music. Beats Music is a curated site that asks you a series of fill-in-the-blank questions to select music for your particular mood and setting. Following your favorite bands and liking or disliking specific songs from Beats’ catalog of more than 20 million helps the site hone its selections to fit your taste. Beats runs on iOS, Android, and Windows devices, as well as on home computers and Sonos speakers. The biggest downside is that the free trial lasts only 14 days. Cost: $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year after free trial.
- Rhapsody. The Rhapsody service comes in two versions, both available to try free for 14 days. Rhapsody unRadio is like a more fully-featured version of Pandora, with unlimited song skips and an option that allows you to listen to 25 favorite songs on demand – even offline. Rhapsody Premier has all these features plus unlimited access to a catalog of millions of songs. With Premier, you can download any song, album, or playlist, and you can listen on home audio devices, as well as with the mobile and web versions supported by unRadio. Cost: $4.99 per month for unRadio or $9.99 per month for Premier after free trial.
Free Streaming On Demand
Some sites don’t require a subscription to stream music – you just go to the site, pick a track, and listen. For instance, on YouTube you can type in the name of just about any song and find a video version of it. Some of these are posted by the artists themselves, some are amateur videos created by fans, and some have just the music accompanied by a blank screen or lyrics. A search for the popular song “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor turned up Trainor’s official video, a live performance of a jazz cover version, and numerous fan-created videos and parodies.
YouTube is a good place to find that obscure song you heard years ago – even if you aren’t sure of the name of the song or the artist. Just type in the most prominent line from the song and let YouTube’s search engine do its thing. Using this method, I successfully tracked down two old novelty songs: “Put the Lime in the Coconut” by Harry Nilsson and “Right Said Fred” by Bernard Cribbins.
Free Music Downloads
In the age of the Internet, it’s very easy to download music illegally. However, if you prefer to keep on the right side of the law – and support your favorite artists and the music labels that support them – you need to dig a little deeper to find free music downloads that are also legal.
- Amazon.com. Amazon.com has a huge catalog of digital music, including more than 46,000 free songs. The bulk of these are filed in the “miscellaneous” category, which includes obscure tracks by relatively unknown artists. However, there are also a few gems by better-known groups, such as the new wave band Blondie and the classical vocal ensemble Chanticleer. To find free songs, go to the Digital Music department, look under “Songs by Price,” and select “Free.”
- Google Play. Google’s Antenna Sampler is a small collection of free tracks from “essential up-and-coming artists.” Genres include hip-hop, electronic, and indie rock, and selections change monthly. This isn’t a place to find hits by established artists, but it offers a chance to discover the next hot band before everyone else does.
- MP3.com. Owned by CBS, MP3.com bills itself mainly as a service for artists rather than listeners. By uploading their songs, the site says they can “reach millions of fans for free” – both through the site’s free downloads and through Last.fm, which draws on the MP3.com catalog. Its “Free Music” selections run the gamut from acoustic, to hip-hop, to Latin, and you can sample any track via Last.fm before downloading it.
- SoundCloud. Digital Trends calls this site “The YouTube of music uploading.” Any user can upload music to the site, making it available for other users to download or just to stream. Not all the music on SoundCloud is free, but free tracks by both major and less-known artists can be found. You can search the site for specific artists or genres, or just browse the selections of “trending music.” SoundCloud’s services are also available through mobile apps for iOS and Android.
- Free Music Archive. Created by radio station WFMU, the Free Music Archive is a collection of free, legal music tracks submitted by the site’s users and curators – including other radio stations, libraries, museums, performance venues, and independent musicians. The music on the site appears under Creative Commons licenses, which let artists make their work available for a variety of uses without surrendering their rights to it completely. Digital Trends calls the archive “a mind-bogglingly large library of tracks” that can be searched by curator or genre and notes that it includes some live radio performances from big-name artists. Visitors can use the site to build personal profiles, connect with other listeners, create and share playlists, post on blogs, and even send donations to their favorite artists via PayPal.
- NoiseTrade. The “trade” in the name NoiseTrade means that artists give you their music on the site in exchange for your email address and postal code. This is a win-win for users, who get free tracks or entire albums, and for artists, who get to build their fan base. Users can create personal fan profiles, keep track of their downloads and favorites, and send tips to their favorite artists with a credit card or PayPal.
Even in the brave new world of digital media, there’s still room for the old-fashioned kind. In fact, according to the same Nielsen report cited above, old-school radio – over the airwaves – is still the primary way listeners discover new music.
Far from killing off broadcast radio, the Internet has revitalized it. A couple of decades ago, you could only listen to your favorite radio station when you were in range of its antenna tower – which made it hard for smaller stations with less power to compete. Today, as long as you have an Internet connection, you can listen to any radio station that has a live web stream. For example, if I want to listen to my local NPR station, WNYC, instead of fiddling with the radio knobs trying to tune it in, I can just type “WNYC.org” into my web browser and click “Listen.”
The Internet can help you discover new radio stations as well. At TuneIn, you can find and listen to Web streams from more than 100,000 radio stations around the world, searching by location or musical genre. Sports, news, and talk radio are also available, and the site can create a personalized feed for you from your favorite stations. In addition to its website, TuneIn is available as an app for iOS or Android devices, and you can listen at home via Sonos, Smart Radio, Roku, or Samsung TV.
IHeartRadio is another site devoted to traditional radio. You can search it by location or genre, as you do with TuneIn, or use the “Perfect For” feature to find a suitable station for a specific activity or time of day. The site can also give you access to podcasts and build a Pandora-style custom station based on specific songs or artists you like.
Despite all the Internet has to offer, digital music may never entirely take the place of physical recordings. In fact, there are even signs that the old-fashioned record store is making a comeback, with Nielsen reporting “record-setting growth” – no pun intended – in sales of vinyl LPs.
The world of modern music isn’t so much about digital versus analog, or recorded music versus streaming, or custom radio versus curated stations. Rather, it’s all about choice. Music lovers today have more options than ever for listening to music exactly the way they want – and thanks to the Internet, they also have plenty of options for how much they spend on it.
What’s your favorite way to find new music?