August 21, 2011

Online music to your ears

The music industry is in limbo.

As record stores across the country close their doors and song collections migrate off the shelf and onto the laptop, countless online music services are vying to make their own listening models the industry standard.

Spotify, a Swedish import that's built a huge fan base in Europe, was launched in the U.S. on July 14.

American music fans now have one more option for building their collections and discovering new songs.

Russ Crupnick, senior entertainment-industry analyst for the NPD Group, a research firm, says Spotify is drawing a lot of attention for a generous six-month free trial period that's almost as good as the real thing. But he adds that it's entering a field already filled with good options.

"It's sort of the latest evolution of music-streaming services," Crupnick says. "But the reality is, I don't think it's new."

Here's a rundown of the most popular online music services and their various perks.

Spotify

The new service has three major factors going in its favor: it's huge, it's simple and in its most basic form, it's (sort of) free. It's essentially an infinite iTunes: Users download a client application that looks and feels just like a personal music library but which gives them instant access to all of its 15 million songs. There are no long download times and no abridged samples. The only thing reminding users that they're essentially renting the songs they're playing are the audio ads that interrupt the flow of music every few spins. Users can either be invited by friends to Spotify Free, which gives them unlimited ad-supported free access for six months or can register without an invite for Spotify Open, which has a 20-hour-per-month limit but is likewise ad-supported and free. A $4.99-per-month membership turns off the ads, and a $9.99-per-month membership additionally lets users play music from mobile devices. It's worth noting that the service is mobbed with new user requests, so setting up either a free or open account may require a little waiting or networking with friends.

Rdio

This slightly smaller service operates on the same basic ideology as Spotify, with a few key differences. Rdio's pay tiers are almost identical ($4.99 per month for computer access, $9.99 per month to add mobile devices) but they don't include Spotify's extended free trial. Its music library, though still vast, is slightly smaller - about 10 million rather than 15 million songs. Rdio's main structural advantage is that it's a more social service, with a bevy of Twitter-like features that let users follow other users and listen to their playlists. This functionality, which will become even more useful as Rdio's user base grows, makes the service an ideal platform for discovering new music. Both services, Spotify and Rdio, are a perfect fit for those with wide and insatiable musical appetites - Spotify especially for the enthusiastic dilettante, with its generous free subscription, and Rdio for the true obsessive, eager to keep tabs on what friends, favorite artists and record labels are playing.

Napster

In some sense, Napster is the granddaddy of all online music services: Its original incarnation, a file-sharing service founded by Northeastern University undergrad Sean Fanning in the late 1990s, essentially invented the idea of a limitless online music library. That first version was shut down in the midst of numerous lawsuits from music labels, and the rights to its name were snapped up by software company Roxio and eventually taken over by current owner Best Buy. Napster's current iteration offers the same endless-library model as Spotify and Rdio. Monthly and quarterly plans run $5 per month (or $10 per month for mobile-device access) and annual plans run for $4.17 per month (or $8 per month with mobile option). The service offers only a 7-day free trial - nothing on Spotify there. But its price cuts for annual membership make it an appealing option for those unafraid of long-term commitment.

Grooveshark

The thing that separates this Internet application from the pack is that all its content is user-sourced: Songs come not from a record label or distributor but from other users, roughly a la YouTube. However, you wouldn't know that from the professional sleekness of its display or the relative high quality of the music files. Grooveshark looks and feels very similar to its subscription-service peers. Most users take advantage of Grooveshark for free, but a $6-per-month subscription cuts off ads and tosses in some nice features, while $9 per month allows for mobile access. Be aware, though, that Grooveshark is knee-deep in lawsuits from all over the music industry. Depending on their outcomes, the whole thing could go the way of Napster 1.0.

Rhapsody

This service, which started running in 2001, got to the all-the-music-you-could-ever-want party early, although newer services have snatched much of its market share since. Users get unlimited access to 12 million songs with a slightly different pricing scheme: $9.99 per month for unlimited streams and use on one mobile device, and $14.99 monthly to use it on up to three different mobile devices or home audio systems.

Pandora

Pandora has emerged as the leader of another music-service school of thought. It's a much more modest platform, and less a mega-library than a particularly sophisticated radio. Users create their own "stations" based on favorite artists and songs, and Pandora's software selects and plays a succession of musically similar songs. Start a Radiohead channel, for instance, and Pandora will play a random song from "The King of Limbs" or "OK Computer," followed by records from, say, Modest Mouse, or The xx, with similar instrumentation, rhythmic structure and mood. Users can give those selections a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, helping Pandora to refine further choices. Listeners who want to hear a particular song at a particular moment will be out of luck: They're bound to the software's whims. For adventurous listeners who prefer to set their music going and see where it leads, it's ideal - or at least an ideal complement to a traditional music library. It helps that the whole thing is free, with occasional ads, and requires minimal effort to get started.

- Slacker Radio is a similar model that offers a $10-per-month enhanced subscription with on-demand listening. One drawback: Picky listeners may quickly find that radio services like Pandora provide proof that music taste is about much more than measurable factors like time signature and style of harmony. Some users may enter an artist and find themselves listening, five songs later, to music stylistically similar but completely and indefinably wrong.

MOG

This service began as a blog network, but has evolved into an intriguing middle route between the huge on-demand model of Spotify and Rdio and Pandora's radio setup. A monthly $4.99 fee (or $9.99 for mobile-device use) gives subscribers access to 11 million songs. The layout is a little bit more cluttered than those of Spotify and Rdio, but the site boasts a particularly cool piece of functionality: an adjustable dial that lets users make the service more library-like or more radio-like, either playing only songs by a given artist or gradually allowing more and more musically similar songs into the mix. MOG also integrates blog entries and news posts seamlessly into its display - a nice perk for those who like context for their listening.

iTunes Store

Apple's online music store remains the gold standard in old-school pay-by-the-song downloads, with around 18 million songs available for purchase. Prices range from 69 cents to $1.29 per song, with the most popular songs sold at the higher end of the range. So that $9.99 per month that buys you unlimited access at Spotify and Rdio would let you pick up seven to 14 new songs a month on iTunes. In that sense, iTunes seems like a rough deal. But for some, owning the music rather than streaming it from the Internet has an intrinsic value that can't be quantified.

by Cory Finley The Arizona Republic Aug. 16, 2011 12:00 AM




Online music to your ears

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