Long gone are the days when the only music available on your computer was that which you ripped from your own CDs or purchased from an online music store. Today, there are several popular music streaming sites that play music that is crafted to fit your particular tastes.
Streaming (whether audio or video) is the real-time playing of media that is stored on a site you connect to via the internet. You don't actually download or store the songs you listen to on your local computer or device. This used to mean that you could only use them on your computer or laptop, but with widespread availability of wifi or through the use of the data plan on your smartphone many more of us are able to use streaming services away from the keyboard.
There are several major streaming sites, each with their own personalities. Let's look at a few that we can choose from.
- Pandora. Pandora starts by asking you to enter an artist song or composer. They say that they will "create a radio station featuring that music and more like it." You can create multiple 'stations' to suit different moods. You can't, however, choose a specific song and have it play immediately. As the station plays you can block certain songs or indicate that you enjoy others helping to create that perfect station for you. The free version has ads between blocks of songs and limits the amount of time you can spend listening each month to 40 hours. For a $36 annual subscription fee you can have unlimited listening and a higher quality stream. There are apps available for play on iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile and Blackberry devices.
- Grooveshark operates on a social database. It depends on its users to upload music, playlists and favorites and allows you to connect to the information gathered from this community curation. It has a lot more music available to listeners including more unique remixes and non-commercial music but the quality of the uploads are dependent upon those same users. Grooveshark is about sharing and discovering new music, so it is probably more likely that you are going to find a playlist of dubstep than Celine Dion's ballads. The service is free for all computer users without limits on listening length. There is a desktop app and a mobile app available to Android, Blackberry and some specific phone manufacturers for $9/month.
- Spotify, the very popular European music streaming service, is rolling out its U.S. launch. It should be available to everyone soon and is already a free app from iTunes. Spotify offers a much larger database of songs compared to Pandora and the ability to play a specific song, artist or album on demand. The free version allows unlimited monthly play, but has occasional ads between blocks of music. Spotify encourages social integration, and has a partnership with Facebook. You can share your playlists, a particular track or let your friends see what you listen to. The premium service is $4.99/ month with higher quality and the ability to load your own collection into a Spotify player (which is available when you are offline). The mobile app for $9.99/month is available for iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile.
- last.fm is another free service available on many platforms. It looks at your music collection, the music you play and creates suggestions based on your listening habits and those of its many users with similar tastes. There is a upgraded account available for $3/month which is ad-free and it is available for iPhone and Android phones.
- The ZunePass offers streaming music, but is most notable for its wide range of downloadable playlists and podcasts. The subscription price is $15/month or $150/year and includes ten song purchases a month. If you use a Zune device or Windows Phone, you can also choose games as part of your subscription price.
All of these services have free versions (the Zune software has a 14-day free trial) so it is best for you to give each a try to see which works with your listening habits. The competition is getting pretty solid, so look for each service to innovate and maybe even lower prices to keep subscribers. With so many possibilities, the future looks bright for music lovers.