Wednesday, March 17, 2010

This Note's For You: A Guide To Free Online Music

(Note: This is quite long, so you might want to first scroll to the middle to be able to play some music as you read)

For as long as I can remember, music has been my foremost passion. Unfortunately not in terms of performing it myself, but in listening to and learning about artists--from upstart to legendary--in a vast array of genres and eras. And for about the last 15 years or so, the Internet has greatly enhanced my ability to enjoy music.

I love that I am able to instantly learn about artists and their work, primarily through the amazing, but also through Wikipedia,, online magazine sites such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, Spin, NME, Q, Uncut, Mojo, artist-specific websites, and music blogs, such as The Audio Perv.

Quite easily now, but really almost impossible before the Internet age, I can see where bands will be performing, anywhere in the world (Pollstar), buy tickets without waiting in line (Ticketmaster), find aftermarket ticket deals (Craigslist, eBay, Stubhub) and see what songs were played ( plus artist-specific fansites like Backstreets, Two Feet Thick, Green Plastic and U2Tours).

I have purchased a lot of music online--in CD, DVD and MP3 form--through iTunes, Amazon and (downloads for just 9-19¢ per song), do the bulk of my everyday music listening through iTunes, iPod or iPhone (mostly of music imported from CD) and have a Sirius satellite radio subscription that allows me to listen online. (Click here for a great comparison of online music stores on Wikipedia).

But relatively speaking, I have never done a ton of listening to music online, meaning not just on my computer but through web-based services. But in an age where I no longer listen much to terrestrial radio--even Chicago's best, WXRT, has become watered down--, where MTV and VH1 stopped playing music years ago, and where record companies rarely "break new artists" anymore, I have found myself missing the ability to readily discover something new. (On my new Google Profile, under the heading of 'Something I still can't find on Google,' my answer is "The next Nirvana.")

Maybe, as I tend to suspect, there really isn't that much truly new that I'd really want to find, at least among artists that promise to have a substantive shelf-life. But the truth is, that even with a musical awareness that runs pretty deep, the possibility exists for me to hear and like a song I never before knew, every day for the rest of my life.

So for the past week, I took it upon myself to take a pretty deep dive into the world of online music sources, mostly in the realm of rock music. Although even within this genre my tastes are pretty broad--from Buddy Holly to Talking Heads to Metallica--I often used less mainstream favorites like The Kinks, The Jam and The Replacements to see which sites not only suited me, but offered a pretty deep selection.

Although I came across several "pay to play" sites that seem to offer reasonable monthly fees for unlimited online listening, because of my extensive collection, existing Sirius subscription and primary desire to find new music, I stuck to sites that are free to use. Some may have pay options, often to broaden the selection or eliminate commercials, but all the sites listed below didn't cost a cent, at least not in the way I used them (with the ability to hear full songs, not just snippets, a baseline criteria).

And while I will almost forthrightly admit (unless the RIAA is reading this) to possibly having used Napster, and then Kazaa, to download free music back in their heyday--although honestly, primarily as a replacement for radio in terms of listening before buying or to hear live bootlegs that weren't commercially available--I long ago gave up peer-to-peer sharing (beyond the legality, often poor sound quality and rampant viruses proved prohibitive), so you're on your own about options like LimeWire, BitTorrent and whatever else the average 12-year-old likely knows about.

While I sometimes worry that (mentioned above) is too cheap to be true, although I've never heard of legality issues nor had a problem, all of the sites cited below are completely legitimate, as far as I know, at least in terms of personal usage without worry.

There are essentially three types of sites, though several overlap and some on my list don't quite fit any of these:

a) "Connective Radio" (my term) sites such as Pandora, and others that play songs similar to the artist or song you use as an entry point to create your own stations.

b) Online Radio sites - Some of these are individual, online-only stations, others may be websites of terrestrial radio stations that offer free streaming, and most listed are portals to quickly access numerous stations across many genres.

c) Free Play sites, such as MySpace Music, Playlist and Lala, where you can hear (and share) pretty much anything you want, some with limitations on number of listens, some without.

Rather that separate them by category, I'll list below my 10 Favorite Free Online Music Sites (plus some others I've found), as of today. Just like with music itself, I'm sure there are many more sources than I know about, or was able to find, and would love to hear about any I missed.

The 10 Best:

1. Pandora - To my knowledge, the original "connective radio" website, and with several refinements over the years, seemingly still the best. Basically you create your own "stations" by entering an artist or song you like, and Pandora plays that artist and other songs by similar artists it thinks you should like. The algorithms for songs that get played work better with some artist/song entry points than others, especially for a listener who would prefer to be fed the obscure along with the obvious. For instance, entering The Kinks gave me The Beatles, Who, etc., but never The Creation, The Pretty Things, The Move, Small Faces or other more obscure artists from '60s Britain. But I really like that you can now email or share (Facebook/Twitter) songs or stations that you think others might like, although you seemingly cannot save songs to hear again later. The depth of information about each artist & song, including lyrics, is great, making Pandora excellent for active exploration or background listening. The Pandora iPhone app is also really good.

2. - I like that I can almost instantly find and hear songs that I want, can make playlists to share (Facebook, email, many other options) and can easily find playlists by others who like the same artists I do. Below should be a Playlist I made of some songs I like. You can find some of my other Playlists here. Only drawbacks seem to be that you can't find every song, especially the more obscure, and audio quality is occasionally deficient.

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

3. NME Radio - Run by England's NME Magazine, this is probably the best online radio station I've found, in terms of playing songs in a vein I like, mixing up songs/artist I know with those I don't and seemingly not having any commercials. It also clearly lists what song is currently playing, and the last 5 that did. Q Radio, from Q Magazine, is also good, but the songs being played aren't listed, at least in my browser.

4. MySpace Music - I've never used MySpace for personal networking, but for sampling full songs, and often whole albums, for free, without constraints on number of listens, there is almost nowhere better. You don't have to be a MySpace member, nor Login to do so. It's biggest negative is that it can be a bit confusing, as most artists have "pages"--such as, on which you can hear 4-6 full songs of the artist's choosing--but if you search for Coldplay on, you can find and hear any of their albums in full, as often as you like. You won't find everything, though with a bit of digging, you'll see that the selection is pretty extensive. There are also ways to save and share playlists, but I didn't try it.

5. Wolfgang's Vault/Concerts - Free listening--although you can also pay to download--to classic concerts by about 30 artists (including Springsteen, Bowie, The Who, Neil Young, Pink Floyd and more). It's part of a bigger site with memorabilia; you have to become a member to hear the concerts, but its free. Not vast, but great stuff. Also a great iPhone app.

6. YouTube - If you want to hear a song, instantly, including myriad live versions, YouTube is probably your best bet for finding it, even it was never released in video form.

7. - On this site, you can find instantly play almost anything--in full album form--such as the new live White Stripes release, but seemingly can only do so once without paying. But while you can download the full album on MP3 for roughly what it costs on iTunes or Amazon, you can pay only about 10¢ per song to save it as a "web album." You can follow the selections heard by friends who connect with you and even see and hear what strangers are listening to. A great way to hear things, once, before buying and getting ideas about what you might like. This is My Lala page.

8. AccuRadio - A portal of AccuRadio's own online radio stations, in many genres, including BritPop, Classic Rock, Modern Rock, Sixties, Eighties, Classical, Jazz, Broadway, etc. While there are plenty of portals to radio stations with online streaming, AccuRadio has great variety, no commercials (that I've yet heard, although they do have banner ads) and tells you the last 3 songs played (with links to learn more and buy on Amazon).

9. - A multi-faceted site with blogs and music news, live performance videos of select artists and a portal to the CBS Radio stations that offer live streaming (same as on AOL and Yahoo). But what I like best is their Listening Party section, where you can choose to hear full albums (multiple times) from about 13 choices. Right now, I'm listening to the new Drive-by Truckers album. Sometimes a limited number of choices are easier to deal with than infinity.

10. Naxos Classical Music Library - As a cardholder of the Skokie Public Library--and I imagine something similar is available through many other libraries--I can access this classical musical database of over half-million recordings, including 40,000+ full CDs by every imaginable composer, and instantly listen for free online to whatever I like. Through the library's Music Resources page, there is also a Naxos Jazz Library that patrons can also access, as well as another Classical database and a bunch of informational links. Without library access, individual subscriptions to Naxos Classical Music Library are $225/year, but even if you're not a Skokie Resident, look for something similar through your local library (although I don't readily see anything comparable on the Chicago Public Library website).

Also of Note:

NPR Music Streams - A portal to dozens of NPR stations that have free online streaming in Rock, Pop, Folk, Classical, Jazz and Blues genres. At the bottom of the page, there are also links to hear recent concerts and many other musical resources. - To use Rhapsody's unlimited listening service on an ongoing basis costs $12.99/mo., but all registered users get 25 free listens per month to anything. Their library is as deep as any I've found, so if I need to hear a particularly song or album I don't own, this is usually the best option. Strangely, the Search function isn't obvious on their home page, but just click any artist name you see anywhere, and you'll get to a page with a Search Box on top.

iTunes Radio - Beyond housing the music you import or download, iTunes--which operates as a program on your computer, not web-based--has a Radio service (6th down under Library on the left) which allows you to stream radio stations worldwide. A couple favorites are LA's KROQ, under Alternative (you can also listen live thru and Radio Caroline (also under Alternative), which was the basis for the Pirate Radio movie. With most stations, you will hear the local commercials, which is why I tend to avoid local radio., Songza and Jango - With the popularity of Pandora, it shouldn't be shocking that similar "Connective Radio" sites exist., Songza and Jango are the best of these that I've found.'s interface is a bit confusing and I don't like that a commercial plays before you hear any music. I did like that it fed me unfamiliar bands like The Feelies and Superchunk on my Replacements Radio Station. It also seemingly saves all tracks played into MyLibrary to hear on subsequent visits, but I don't think you can really hear anything on demand. Songza has a much simpler interface than and has some preset Mix Stations (such as Indie Buzz), but its feeds for Replacements Radio were much more obvious: Paul Westerberg and Sugar. Besides, there is also, the old version which essentially lets you find YouTube videos. I don't like Jango's interface and likely won't use it much; it does have one nice feature: the ability to switch to songs other listeners are hearing in the vein of your "station."

YahooMusic - You can probably hear, and see (through myriad videos) almost anything, but finding it--particularly on demand--isn't nearly as easy as I would prefer. The best bet here is probably the Radio Station portal powered by CBS Radio, which does the same for AOL Radio and - A portal to thousands of online and terrestrial (with live streaming) radio stations in many genres. Many choices for free, but VIP membership gets you more choices and no commercials. Stations included here seem to be different than CBS Radio offerings, which power both Yahoo and AOL.

BBC Radio One - The main radio station for music in England, but their playlist has been veering more to Top 40 pop than the BritPop that I prefer. - Relatively few songs by unknown artists, that seem to start automatically upon entering the site, but some sounded decent. - Also focuses on unknown, unsigned artists, but Charts section helps you give you some sense of what to sample.

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