Technology and distribution have had an exponential effect on how we’ve listened to our music over the last 50 years. Back then, we were a people who only listened to what was played on the local radio, mixed by some guy with slicked back hair and rolled up jeans. Next, it was the mania of the latest gramophone at the local retailer, because you wanted to personally contribute to the boys who brought you “Eleanor Rigby.” Then it was on to long-haired portability, because head-banging was born for your sick Camaro. Now we are an “on-demand” society. Why should we have to drive all the way down the street to buy the newest installment of Nickelback (not that we’d ever willingly do that) when we could download it from our living room couch via iTunes? There’s no use in owning the antiquated physical version of your music when it will only limit where you can listen to it. Like myself, may were introduced to digital music through illegal means (see Napster). However, it is my goal in this article to either introduce or refresh you on some of the better, more legal avenues for listening and obtaining music in 2009.
It just seemed natural to get iTunes out of the way first. Obviously Apple is the big fish here in this digital sea, so I won’t spend too much time talking about using iTunes. If you don’t already know, that’s probably because you are a rebellious Amish boy that sneaked into the nearest library because of your devotion to reading Rhombus. (Thanks for the commitment.) As for the rest of us, you may have noticed the spotlight these days on iPhone apps and HD movie rentals, making it hard to remember that the iTunes Music Store still sells music. Rest assured, because not only do they sell music, its now 100% DRM-free. Not so fast though: That license freedom did not come without a price. Aside from some deeper cuts and older releases being discounted a smidgen, almost all new releases and top selling tracks now bear a $1.29 price tag. 30 cents may not seem like a lot but, based on my library (which I did acquire solely via iTunes), if I had paid the current prices I would be out an extra $350. Overall, I would say that you would use iTunes primarily out of convenience. You probably already own an iPod, so going this route is as simple as one click to purchase and plug in to sync.
What a journey the crew at Napster has been on. They were the premier illegal source for mp3 downloads around the turn of the century. Even my Ninth Grade P.E. teacher used their service: he had me download shady versions of the Doobie Brothers in return for class credit. Despite their illegality, Napster was an important part of ushering in our current age of music distribution. However, their offering has changed a bit different since my junior high days. First off, it’s now legal, which is a plus for me. Until recently their service was a flat monthly fee of $12.95 and if you didn’t buy an official “Napster to-go” device, you were essentially paying for a glorified version of Pandora (without the clever recommendations). If your specific mp3 player of choice is “to-go” status, you can still opt back in to that plan. As for the rest of us, we get their new web-only service. For $4.99 a month you have all the access to their online library you can handle. They do have a Windows-only desktop client (sorry, Mac users) that allows you to listen and build custom playlists, but requires an internet connection to function. Included in the fee, Napster also allows you five full mp3 downloads every month. So if you find yourself only purchasing a song here or there from iTunes, this may be the perfect hybrid option for you. (For those of you who are interested, Rhapsody is another alternative service similar to Napster. CNet did a comparison of the two here.)
Online radio at its finest. Pandora takes your favorite song or artist and builds a radio station around them. Sounds almost too good to be true, right? Well it pretty much was until May of this year when they added some usage limitations. Pandora has always been ad supported — that’s how they stay afloat. However, now there is a max time usage of 40 hours per month, in addition to your individual radio sessions timing out after 1 hour. You can thank/blame their new service, Pandora One: There are no monthly usage restrictions, it’s higher quality music (192 kbps), you can use their lightweight AIR desktop app and — last but not least — no more ads.
LaLa seems to have taken a different initial approach than the others. I suppose they assumed most people already had some sort of music collection on their computer already, so they decided to integrate with that. The Windows/Mac sync program called “LaLa Mover” will analyze the music on your computer and place the matches in your online LaLa library. If they cannot find certain songs you own on their site, they will automatically upload those tracks until all your music is on the Interweb. Their idea is allowing you the flexibility of filling your library with either 79 cent mp3 tracks or 10 cent online-only tracks. The LaLa ecosystem is not quite as straight forward as others, but accounts are free and there is no monthly bill. For those of you familiar with imeem, you will feel right at home with LaLa.
Colton Chesnut is co-founder and Web editor for Rhombus. He doesn’t really like Nickelback. We promise. Send him a tweet @coltonjchesnut.
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