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Free and easy: the online music scene

By ameyers

Section: Arts

March 23, 2007

Over the past couple of years the commercial radio station has taken quite the hit. Listeners will no longer put up with an endless slew of ads every hour in order to hear a usually very limited amount of music in radio-friendly genres. The invention of several online music services has helped listeners to hear exactly what they want in a wide variety of ways. Here is a brief look at some of the most unique of these new services, which allow for greater customization than ever before.

Perhaps the first place to go online to listen to music for free is the revolutionary Last.fm. Through Last.fm one can personalize exactly what one wants to hear. A plug-in is even available that will analyze one's iTunes library and recommend new and similar music, then stream it for free. One is able to search specifically by artist or genre, whereby one is given songs that not only fit that artist or genre but other closely related artists and genres, as well. The playlists generated by these searches can include specific categories like singer-songwriter, instrumental, albums I own, and Austrian bands.

Last.fm even has a built-in feature which makes recommendations based on what a specific listener has searched for in the past. Registered users can use the player in blogs or personal websites. Last.fm allows customizable profiles, a chance for users to find friends or neighbours who possess similar music tastes and the ability to post events, journal entries and a playlist for anyone to see. The site also has a charts feature which can provide the buzz on the hottest new music. Last.fm is truly a Facebook-type place for music lovers to move beyond their own limited iTunes playlists.

Another quite popular way of listening to music online is through a music service known as Pandora. Pandora is a bit different than Last.fm in that it takes the structure of a song or artist and picks similar matches. The selections are based on approximately 400 attributes, while these attributes are further divided into about 2,000 focus traits like vocal harmony, rhythm syncopation and overall sound. A user could listen to a playlist completely based off of songs that resemble the latest Shins' single or a Rolling Stones' song that is over 40 years old. The site even includes all the versions of the same song, so one could conceivably listen to drastically different playlists of the same song covered by different artists. Also, there are many ways to integrate Pandora with other music services like iTunes and Last.fm.

Yahoo provides a similar service called Launchcast which is based on a four-star rating system. Artists, albums and songs are all separately rated in this system while any song, artist or album that is undesired can be blocked. Like at Last.fm, the more ratings are given, the more reliable the station is to select the listener's favorites. The amount of ads on Launchcast is a drawback but the overall ability to rank with Yahoo's star system means the listener is more likely to hear what the listener wants to hear as frequently or infrequently as indicated. The customizable stations do throw in some new and lesser-known music, but generally discovering new music via Launchcast is harder to do than at Last.fm or Pandora. Yahoo also offers an intriguing service entitled Yahoo! Radish which is a blog that has playlists related to each article that is written. These playlists are generally based around a theme, list or other pop culture reference.

If one merely wants to hear a single song that has been in one's head all day, Mercora presents an interesting option. The site is easily searchable, with over three million songs readily available to stream off of other users' computers, and is completely free and legal. Many of the same functions that are provided at the other music listening websites are also provided at Mercora, although the site does not focus on ratings as much as the others. Of course, other websites such as MySpace and Pure Volume also allow users to hear specific songs from many artists, enabling users to get a feel for the sound and to be part of an online community.

AOL's service (AOL Radio) is also top notch, with a wide array of genres to choose from, ranging from Renaissance to All Pearl Jam to Melancholia. AOL Radio also includes a good amount of exclusive material that can be heard nowhere else. The station is powered through XM Radio and allows presets and rankings. Actual DJs run these stations and make selections for each genre based on user input. The drawback to AOL Radio is that users can select the station and genre they are hearing but not the artists themselves. Users are also unable to skip tracks they do not wish to hear but can easily go to one of more than 200 different stations in search of something else.

These are just a handful of the countless numbers of ways listeners can now legally hear music online. Unfortunately for commercial radio, the online medium has allowed for much greater and quicker access to music a user wants to hear. In the same vein as Facebook and MySpace, it has also created online communities of knowledgeable and enthusiastic users that are definitely worth checking out.

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