A State of Digital Music

Nothing has more drastically impacted the music industry like the Internet. The late nineties challenged the traditional sales model of music, so much so that we began pushing the boundaries of copyright protection and its ethical implications. Fast forward to today and we see that the kinks have still not been worked out, but there are suddenly steep repercussions for deliberate infractions. The average consumer feels cornered to either continue contributing to the traditional waltz to the store to buy an album, or purchasing music through an online store such as iTunes. While the best cost efficiency ratio is heralded by iTunes, there is still something missing. Finding new music on iTunes is painful at best and once purchased, there is no guarantee that you will always have that music. Hard drive failure could mean the loss of your music and at best case scenario, you are subjected to spending hours re-downloading all of your music. This makes purchasing a CD sound like a good idea; at least you get what you pay for. Keeping things in perspective, it remains a more fulfilling avenue than FM radio.

The question remains: where does one find new music (relevant to one’s interests) on the vastness of the Internet?

To answer that, we have to step away from our previous interactions with the music industry and step towards streaming music. But what is streaming music? You can think of it as a radio that is transmitted via the Internet. What sets streaming music apart is the ability to find the stations that fit your mood. It is more convenient than skimming over a large music collection and it takes no hard drive space to utilize it. There are several services to choose among as well, but I will touch on only the most prolific solutions: http://www.pandora.com , http://www.slacker.com , and http://www.last.fm .

Pandora has been around for years and offers an immense variety of music in excellent quality, even for those of us on less than broadband internet connections. The service is easy to use, you simply type in an artist that you are fond of and they retrieve music that is related using the Music Genome Project which compares music using complex mathematical algorithms. By creating a profile, it allows users to listen to up to forty hours of music per month completely free. The best part is that once you have entered an artist, it instantly creates a virtual station that plays similar tunes. Better yet, you can customize the station using a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down. If forty hours is not enough to satiate your musical palate, an annual $39 subscription allows unlimited access and includes the option to play the music in better quality among other perks. Free users get occasional advertisements, but are far less frequent than FM radio.

Slacker.com offers a similar service to Pandora, where virtual stations are created and skipping unwanted songs is allowed. It also has options for using their service on smart phones making it a great alternative to an iPod or Zune. Their site includes a “Top Stations” option where you can see what other users are listening to and a “Spotlight” section for up and coming artists. Slacker has a low $3.99 monthly subscription option that removes ads and includes all the lyrics for those who want to sing along. If a subscription sounds good now, it gets better with a free mini player that will access your Slacker account without using your web browser.

Last but certainly not least is Last.fm. Its web site works similarly to Pandora and Slacker in that entering an artist will create a virtual station that will play similarly styled music using a system called “Audioscrobbler”. Last.fm shines above the competition in its compatibility with a range of media players and mobile devices. The mighty Winamp (http://www.winamp.com) includes a plug-in for Last.fm that allows you to search for pre-created stations directly from the media player interface. Their website has a clean interface and includes most-listened to artists and a “Hype Chart” that shows artists that have become more listened to recently. Last.fm has more genre-centric options where selecting “rock” opens a portal that includes upcoming live events in your area! Last.fm also includes a subscription service for $3 a month that includes no advertising, custom user playlists, and the ability to view recent visitors to your stations.

While I have only included three of the most popular Internet streaming music options, there remain other distinguished services available to consumers. I personally have a paid subscription to Pandora and have even attended live events for artists that I have discovered from their service. I was even able to save a substantial amount of money on music entertainment using Pandora to act as DJ at parties. I hooked up some quality speakers to my laptop, started a station I had created beforehand and didn’t have to touch it the rest of the evening. It grants flexibility to listen to music while on my laptop on Augusta State’s campus, while on the job, and working on projects at a coffee shop. As long as I have an Internet connection, I have my music connection.