Music Tech Stuff

Music Sharing and Music Streaming

A digest of some leading web sites

7Digital. The American version at us.7digital.com offers $.99 downloads from its catalog. There’s a small assortment of free tracks, and a section to purchase albums for $7 or $8 on sale. You can preview short selections of songs before you buy them. Some tracks are $.77.

Unlike iTunes, which seems to max out somewhere around 10 minutes, the $.99 charge is good for longer tracks as well. Several 20-minute-plus cuts from Miles Davis albums are downloadable here individually, where on iTunes they can be had only as part of a full album download. On 7Digital you can download “Kind Of Blue” for $5.94, where on iTunes it’s $9.99. “Bitches Brew” costs just $6.93, on iTunes $16.99 Plus, only one track on the iTunes version is downloadable individually. All of them are on 7Digital.
It doesn’t work that way every time, sometimes iTunes is less expensive. But if your taste runs to long jams, it will pay to shop around.

Amazon. www.amazon .com has 11 million songs available, with reasonably priced album downloads, specials, and the occasional free track. Prices per track vary depending on the length and popularity. Anything over 10:00 long will tend to be an album-only purchase. Their search engine is nice, letting you see and preview results, and sort long lists by a number of different critera.

AOL Radio. At music.aol.com/ you can open up a separate player window to stream in broadcasts from 29 different categories, from Alternative and Comedy to Talk Radio and World Music. Each category has from 3-31 stations, and many include streams from broadcast stations with similar playlists across the country. The audio quality is very good.

The site is advertiser supported, and brief commercial breaks come regularly. Tracks come in order, but you can skip up to five an hour if there’s something you don’t like. An AOL account is not necessary, but you do have to register. You can assign a star rating to songs that play, and supposedly this helps them compile “top 10” lists, as well as decide what music to air.

BearShare. Versions 6 and above of the BearShare (bearshare.com) desktop application are legal. Be careful when you install it and read the screens, otherwise it will make itself your default home page and search engine, and add other clutter to your desktop. It also has an abuse-prone chat feature, enabled by default. Within hours I had gotten a porn-related spam message, even after closing the application window.

A general subscription is free, though a premium subscription is required for some tracks. The free subscription allows you to access your account from three computers and use two portable devices.

There are three broad classes of music you can get, depending on what subscription entitles you to:

  • Peer-2-Peer Unlicensed Media: free to download, no subscription fee, burn or upload to your player.
  • Premium Tracks: download as many as you want and play them on your PC with a paid subscription, but you can’t burn or upload unless you purchase the track.
  • Purchased Tracks: at $.99 each, this allows you to burn or upload them.
  • Videos: These seem to be free links to YouTube. They may or may not actually be available.

The vast majority of tracks are in the first category, so if you’re hoping to download something by Radiohead to your iPod, you can count your choices on your fingers. A monthly subscription (after a 14-day trial period, and one month for $1) is $9.95 per month.

Bearshare is owned by iMesh, and uses the same software. iMesh claims “over 15,000,000 music downloads and MP3s”; Bearshare claims “over 20,000,000 songs and videos.”

emusic. www.emusic.com is an online store where you can buy MP3 downloads in bulk at a monthly subscription rate. Their catalog has over 7 million songs, as well as 6500 audio book titles. Each plan (Basic, Plus, Premium, Connoisseur) gives you 45 free downloads in your first month, and then after that prices range from $11.99 to $30.99 for a fixed number of downloads (24 to 75) a month, in general less than half of what they cost on iTunes. If you cancel, you still own the downloaded songs.

Like 7Digital, and unlike iTunes, longer tracks are available as single downloads outside of a full-album download. The first movement of the Mahler 3rd Symphony, 35 minutes long, is 8 separate downloads you have to chain together on iTunes at $.99 each. It’s one single download here. (And if you want to hear the end of the finale on iTunes you have to buy the whole album!)

Insound. While it focuses on features items for the vinyl fan, www.insound.com also has a big collection of MP3s, many downloadable for free (3,023 when I checked). (Remember, free doesn’t mean it’s public domain; redistribution is probably restricted). The site’s blog highlights new “Stuff We Like,” there’s a bargain section of inexpensive album downloads, a vinyl section with LPs, EPs and even 7” singles, plus audio hardware including turntables.

iTunes. Hardly needs explanation. The desktop application conveniently loads tracks you rip or buy from the iTunes store onto your iPod.

Kazaa. Kazaa is a downloadable music-sharing application for Windows, available by paid subscription. Since Kazaa was in the past a pioneer in the dark art of adware, I’m not going to download and install it for review.

A subscription is $19.98 per month, and it allows you to get an unlimited number of songs to play on up to three PCs that you own. However, once your subscription expires you can no longer play the downloaded songs.
There are 42 different genres available, including unusual ones like Celtic, Tropical and Spoken Word. There aren’t any sub-genres.

LaLa. Lala.com lets you listen to a song or album once for free, then download it. You can buy unlimited web listens for $.10, or buy the full track outright. The price-per-track is $.89 or $.99. You can also purchase entire albums for web listening or download, at a steep discount. For example, one four-disk set in the classical department could be downloaded for $12.99, or as a “web album” for $5.76.

The LaLa Music Mover is a separate application that you can point at a directory on your computer where you store your music (such as your iTunes directory). It will scan it, and any music that you already own is marked as “purchased” in your online account, so that you can listen to it from other computers. For example, if you have a large iTunes collection on a desktop computer at home, you can point the Music Mover at it, and then be able to listen to anything it finds in the LaLa database from wherever you are. It found about 2/3 of the music in my library. Lala will be shut down as of May 31, 2010. Balances and credits can be converted for use at the iTunes store.

last.fm. Signup at www.last.fm is easy. After confirming your membership via the email sent to you, you’re presented with a quick startup screen, where you enter your favorite artists. This is the one I find myself pulling up the most, in its desktop application format.

I started with a fairly random assortment of Stravinsky, Mahler, Beatles, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Elliott Carter, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Based on that I got a “Recommended Radio” station that used these as seeds. Some interesting and great selections came up (along with some boring and lame ones), but even after clicking past the first dozen or so choices I still hadn’t seen a single item by one of the artists I picked. You can “ban” tracks that come up, which is helpful, or “love” them. So I’ll never have to listen to “Air on the G String” or the Pachelbel Canon again.

The recommendations tend to be well on-target, though a little repetitive; Short playlist? You can open up a separate window with information about the artist, and add them to your library. If you sign up for the $3/month package you can listen to playlists that you build. There are further limitations on this, though. It would be nice to simply select the tracks on an album and listen; but your playlist has to include at least 45 playable tracks by 15 different artists.

Live365. www.live365.com features over 250 genres of stations, from Acid House to Zouk, and each genre can offer hundreds of individual stations. They range from feeds of commercial stations, to user-created stations. A free signup gives you “hundreds” of these, plus the ability to save presets. Optional paid subscription packages at $5.95 – $7.95 a month eliminate commercials, banners and popups. You also get a higher bit rate (higher-quality sound), and no “sold-out” stations (these are marked with a “VIP” icon). Otherwise, each station you tune into starts with a :30 commercial.

Stations are user-rated with stars, and they tell you how many total listening hours each station gets along with the audio bitrate.

The day I was testing this site, it was just about impossible to get any music to play – some kind of bandwidth problem, perhaps. Very unresponsive, very frustrating.

Music Online. Alexander Street Press’ Music Online site has a large, searchable collection of classical and world music available for listening. There are nearly 17,000 works available, sortable by ensemble or performer, composer, title or genre. Free registration allows you to set up playlists.

Napster. The application that put music sharing front-and-center in the public’s attention is now owned by Best Buy. A subscription at www.napster.com gets you “MP3 download credits and unlimited access to full-length, on-demand streaming music from Napster’s catalog of over 9 million songs.” A 7-day free trial is advertised, but you only get it if you’ve signed up for one of the plans and entered your credit card information – at that point the first 7 days are free. Plans are by the month at various discount levels ranging from $7 a month for a one-month subscription, to $60 for a one-year plan. Every plan gives you credits for 5 MP3 downloads a month.

Pandora. www.pandora.com is another free streaming radio station-style site, one that allows you to fine-tune your stations (up to 100) to your own music tastes. You choose “Song Seeds” from the results of searches, and the system finds songs that are related. When a song is playing, you can see the lyrics if available, and information about the album the song is from. You can click “like” or “don’t like,” to further refine your station. If you click “don’t like,” you get a nice apology, and a promise to never play it again. “Like” a song, and you’re assured they’ll play more songs that are similar. The Boss seems to like this one best.

Free users are limited to 40 hours of listening every month. You are also allowed to skip over a limited number of songs per hour. “Buy” links are provided to Amazon and the iTunes store if you want to download a song.
The audio quality isn’t as good as AOL; the signal is weaker so you need to turn the volume up higher.

Pandora is mobile-capable, so you can run it on Android, Blackberry, iPhone, Palm and Windows devices. There’s also a $36/year “Pandora One” desktop application that gives higher-quality audio, no ads and unlimited listening. It’s becoming more tightly integrated with Facebook; you can “Like” a band on Pandora and have it appear on your Facebook profile, for example.

Project Playlist. Project Playlist searches the Web looking for sites that host “legal” mp3s.

The site is advertising-funded, and they make payments to the various artists’ reps and publishers. Nevertheless, they’ve been subjects of legal actions in the past and have been blocked in the past by MySpace; they have, on the other hand, signed a deal with Sony and are being studied by AOL for a possible buyout.

Subscribers are invited to create an account and put together any number of playlists based on searches through Playlist’s database, or by directly pointing to a URL. Because the database consists only of links to music files hosted elsewhere, your playlists can break when a file is removed.

The player is a Flash-based application that lets you start/stop/pause, re-order, and edit your lists. You can also share them by posting them to your Facebook or other favorite social-networking site, making them public on the site, or getting embed code to put them into your blog or web site. The files themselves aren’t directly reachable, so downloading and sharing is difficult; the player simply passes the mp3 file stream through.

It’s very easy to make a playlist, search and add songs, and pull them up. The sound quality is only as good as the file that was uploaded.
The selection is large – basically every “legal” music file they can find. “Legal” is in quotes because they have no way of knowing for sure. For example, there are a couple hundred Beatles’ songs, and it seems unlikely that their entire catalog has been licensed for this kind of thing. They do make it easier for publishers to track and report pirated files, and they claim that they remove them quickly from their database. If your playlist links to one of them, it will have broken songs.

Puretracks. is an iTunes-like store for downloading. Prices start at $.99 a track.

Rhapsody. Rhapsody.com lets you listen to any song in their 9 million-song catalog for a flat monthly rate of $9.99 a month. You can listen from your PC, on a home device attached to your stereo (from Sonos, Logitech, Linksys, Yamaha etc.), stream to your phone, or download songs to a compatible mp3 player (3rd generation iPods, Philips GoGear, SanDisk). For $14.99 a month you can include three mobile devices. The downloaded songs run on apps, so they’re only good as long as you’re a subscriber. You can buy songs from the MP3 Store for permanent download, at prices from $.99 to $1.29.

Music is divided into 19 genres, with a deep organization of subgenres and sub-subgenres. For example, the Rock/Pop genre has 16 subgenres; the “Roots” subgenre is divided into Cajun/Zydeco, Swamp Pop and Tex Mex. The Art & Progressive Rock section has subgenres of Krautrock, New Prog and Rock Opera.

Also included is Rhapsody Radio, a long list of thematically programmed stations. A lot of them are labeled “free,” but they’re limited to 25 plays.
A playlist feature lets you line up songs of your choice, and you can save or share the list.

SHOUTcast. Another internet radio compilation, affiliated with AOL Radio. You can use their mini-player, or associate their filetype with iTunes or WinAmp so you can play it through that application.

Slacker Personal Radio has a wide range of streaming stations across many genres. Easy-to-use and searchable, you can just listen, or open an account for $3.99 or $4.99 a month (depending on how long a subscription you pay for up front). A subscription gets rid of ads, lets you skip unlimited numbers of songs, and gives you unlimited requests.

Artists’ Sites

Independent artists looking to build an audience often put their music up for free downloading. Bear in mind, the artists still own the copyright, so further distribution isn’t necessarily legal. However, you will be free to listen, replay, and share with your friends.

Artist Direct. A promotional site, www.artistdirect.com offers several hundred free MP3 downloads across 16 popular-music categories at any time without registration, along with a big catalog of songs to listen to online. It’s more of a full-featured music site than a pure source, with ads, reviews, concert tickets, fan pages, video, news etc.

Finding a specific song or artist is difficult-to-impossible; instead you browse through their pretty much undifferentiated lists of selections. But if you’re looking for something new, it might work for you.

You can stream “listening parties,” or full albums – if you can find one you want.

Soul Seek, SLSK Records, and Soul Seek Records. SoulSeek combines a desktop application and a record label. This is one that The Daughter recommended.

The basic cost is $2.49/month, with steep discounts if you buy two years or three years. Each gives you unlimited access. Registration is required to download the application. Watch for the checkbox to receive spam, you’ll probably want to uncheck it.

A P-2-P network, not all of the music shared on SoulSeek is legal to download.

Soulseek.org highlights their artists, with some full-length album previews, links to artists’ pages on discogs.com, archive.org, or scene.org. The Shut Up And Listen pages have full albums, downloadable track-by-track as MP3s, or one zip file, for free.

Tom

Tom McGee has been building web sites since 1995, and blogging here since 2006. Currently a senior developer at Seton Hall University, he’s also a freelance web programmer and musician. Contact him if you have the need for a blog, web site, redesign or custom programming!

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