In this world today, it’s unbelievable sometimes how many things we take for granted. One of the ones that I think we should be most appreciative of is how readily-accessible music is. Among the many “When I was your age” lessons that’s already taking root is how just 20 years ago, you had to wait for songs on the small handful of radio stations available, or else buy an expensive CD or tape.
We’ve now gone so far to the opposite extreme that we can’t picture it being any other way. Almost every song ever recorded is now available somewhere. Sometimes you have to (*gasp*) pay $0.99 for it if it’s truly rare, assuming you want to listen to it legally, and listen to it now. Most of the times, you don’t. Usually, it takes not even a minute to find it and start playing it. If you find it on YouTube, it may even come with a wonderful little music video that someone took it upon themselves to make for free. Have I mentioned again that we’re spoiled?
Down by the stream
Knowing how many users are going to download music for free and needing a way to rope them back in, companies offering streaming music services are now common. The peace of mind of never having to worry about piracy charges combined with the ease of use many of these services offer, typically makes the slight annoyance of advertisements and occasional fees worth it for a lot of people. This, in turn, has resulted in a proliferation of streaming music web sites.
If you’ve never sat down and just let the web sing to you, then you could use a good pointer towards the best services. Here’s a quick summary of some of the most popular music streaming web sites out there:
1. Pandora | http://www.pandora.com/
One of the first music streaming sites is still one of the most popular. It is populated by 80 million users, who push it to a ranking of 346th most popular site on the web according to Alexa.
What makes Pandora so popular? Likely it is because of the site’s elegant design, ease of use, and intelligent style-matching algorithms. The user can create “stations” that are based around a set of like and dislike criteria. Pandora then attempts to play songs that match your criteria based on what other users listening to the same thing have listened to. You can also click on a song and it will tell you exactly why that song was listed.
Downside of the service is that while you can pause a song, you can’t rewind or repeat a song, or even repeat an artist. It’s sort of like a real-life DJ that way. It also implemented a limit of 40 hours of free streaming per month, before a near-revolt caused them to relent last month to a more reasonable 320 hours.
2. Grooveshark | http://grooveshark.com/
Grooveshark boasts no small following either, having passed the 35 million user mark in May of 2011. It is also a very loyal following: one online poll rated this as the most popular of all streaming music services.
The design could be part of the reason. Grooveshark gives you freer reign in creating the type of playlist you want, with a nicely done drag-and-drop interface. Grooveshark also lets you upload your own music to add to the communal library, which might be the largest of all sites with a massive 22 million songs (it’s a great place for mash up seekers). You can use a free account, or you can register an upgraded account, which you can use to remove ads and listen to Grooveshark on your phone.
3. Last.fm | http://www.last.fm/
Last.fm is the social networking hub of music streaming. Instead of just a simple page with a list of songs like on many streaming sites, the site is filled with options for listening and finding new music, artist and song information, and data about who else likes your favorite songs and artists. It also works with you to exchange information back and forth between local music listening applications like Winamp, and with other social media sites. All of this does give it a more corporate feel, but it compensates for this with a gigantic library of 12 million tracks.
4. Spotify | http://www.spotify.com/
As opposed to the above sites, Spotify runs as a stand-alone application instead of through your browser. It’s been a popular streaming service in Europe, but is now rapidly expanding.
Part of this is because of its partnership with FaceBook. You are shown in the main window which of your friends are online listening to music, and you can update your FaceBook feed with what you are currently listening to. Combined with its recent US launch (it was mostly confined to the UK before), this is one of the fastest rising choices.
5. Rdio | http://www.rdio.com/
Rdio is the choice for listeners who are interested in expanding their musical horizons. While, like a lot of the services, you can just use it as a personal DJ, its strength comes from the fact that it is heavily designed around using your friends’ lists to influence yours, combined with its extensive library of 9 million songs. It is also available for just about every smart phone platform, despite being one of the newest offerings. Do note that it is subscription-only, but it is ad-free.
6. MOG | http://mog.com/
MOG is one of the best choices for the person that is just listening for themselves. It lacks the social networking aspect of most of the other choices. Making up for that is the free 12 million song library, an easy-to-use interface, and the fact that the songs are streamed to you at 320 kbps. Mobile apps for MOG are available for both iOS and Android.
7. Slacker Radio | http://www.slacker.com/
Rounding out our list is one of the best overall packages around. Its best features are reserved for its paid service, though its free service does offer unlimited streaming. The interface is attractive and simple to navigate, and songs are available for immediate playing. The subscription accounts let you play entire albums on demand, and offer a host of customization options.
I suppose we should close that by pointing out that Google is getting into the game with “Music Beta by Google“. They just can’t leave anything alone, can they? By the way, Music Beta is currently only available in the United States. Stay tuned!