By Brandon Wlosinski
Throughout the history of college life, one thing seems to be the driving force behind study sessions, long nights, and social gatherings. That is music. However, unlike our predecessors in the collegiate arena, we are now able to hit the books with tools far greater than they could have ever imagined. From the power of the internet and from hotly contested lawsuits, we are seeing the rise of streaming music, that is, music that is played from a web browser, at anytime and anywhere. This has given us access to libraries of music that we would never have seen before, and as such, music tastes are becoming more ranged and diversified.
But which of these services are right for you? Here’s a rundown of four of the most popular streaming music services that the College Info Geek team can’t get enough of:
Grooveshark focuses on presenting the user with the ability to search for music and create customized playlists, which can be saved to a user account. There is also a radio feature, but it is extremely limited to basic genre selections, though it can give a person a slightly wider view of music. Grooveshark’s basic features of playing music, making playlists, and basic radio come free and do not even require singing up (though your playlists are deleted after you exit the browser if you do not have an account). You can pay $6 a month to get an ad-free Grooveshark, or $9 a month to get ad-free and a mobile application for your smartphone to stream music from anywhere you can get a data connection.
One of the drawbacks of Grooveshark, however, is its user interface, which is very Flash heavy, as are its ads. I have noticed on some machines this can cause quite a bit of lag at times and the site can go down if your Flash player crashes. Load times and smoothness of song-to-song playing can bet affected by this, which is unfortunate for people with lower than average connections. On the other side of the ads though, they do not in and of themselves interrupt your listening, so there is a slight advantage to other sites like Pandora.
Grooveshark, in essence, is a service for people who know what they want. If you are looking for a somewhat quick and simple site, Grooveshark may not be for you (You may want to stick to Pandora or Last.fm). I had to spend a nice chunk of time developing my playlists, and I had to know exactly what I was looking for. In the end though, its free library-building features and wide selection of songs allows Grooveshark to be a heavy favorite in my book.
Spotify is a player that seems to be in the same vein as Grooveshark. It allows for users to create playlists based on simple searches. Like Grooveshark, it is fairly specific in its searches, so you need to know what you are looking for. It does give you some networking capabilities.
However, for its similarities to Grooveshark, Spotify seems to outdo Grooveshark in some key ways. For one, the player is a desktop application that is very similar in style to iTunes. This allows for a generally smoother experience and overall better UI. The downside is that the free version has some really annoying ads that basically lock up the player until they are done. You can also add your own files into the player, which is nice if you already have an extensive library.
If you are looking for an even better experience though, it has the standard pricing. $5 will get you an ad-free experience, whereas $10 will get you a the nifty ability to download your music and play the songs while offline. Having the player application makes it a more streamlined experience.
Last.fm is one of the original music radio streaming sites. It is very similar to Pandora in its features and method of playing music. You can search by song, band or genre to create a radio station that will play songs similar to that search item. You can save these. Last.fm is a free service, and is paid through mainly by ads that appear in the site and during playtime.
One thing I’ve noticed is that is a bit of difference between Pandora and Last.fm is that Last.fm seems to pick up on the style of some of my more obscure music. A test I use as a general rule is the band Trocadero (a Red vs. Blue fan favorite, check them out!) who are relatively lesser known. Last.fm not only knew who I was looking for, but was able to provide me with alternatives that fit the soft rock feel that Trocadero is known for.
One very unique aspect of Last.fm is that if you are in the US, UK, or Germany, there are no subscription services. Everything on their site is free if you live in these countries, which is a fair contrast to everything else on this list which will usually offer at least an optional subscriber section. This even extends to the mobile application which comes on Droid, iOS, Xbox, and Windows, as well as other platforms. However, if you do live outside on of these three countries you will need to pay for the radio service.
Many people have heard of Pandora and millions now use it every day. Pandora is a music streaming service in which allows a user to generate customized radio stations, which can be made to search for music according to genre, artist, album, and even song name. The program will then play songs that it finds are similar to the radio station’s name. You can then rate the songs on whether you think it matches your station or not, which helps to further refine the station. Pandora is a wonderful tool that you may want to use if you are not sure of exactly what you want to listen to, but you have a vague idea of what you want.
Pandora is a free online application that is powered by ads that play in-between songs, much like a radio station. You can also download the Pandora Mobile app for free, which is a huge advantage to a number of the services on the list. However, there are caveats. One is that if you are a user of the free version of Pandora you are limited to the amount of times you can skip a song, which is 6 skips per hour per station and 12 skips per day across all stations. While the need to skip songs goes away as a station gets more refined, the only permanent way to get unlimited skipping is to upgrade to the paid for service Pandora One, which comes with a price tag of $36 per year ($3 per month essentially), though included with this is a better grade in music, no advertising, customizable skins, and a desktop application.
In conclusion, there is no clear winner in the realm of online music providers. What I hope this article shows is that we are moving into a new age of music access and listening. We are no longer limited to physical media or even ownership of music. There are a number of free applications with the ability to upgrade and paid sites with unique features and interesting experiences. Hopefully, this guide gives a better idea of some of the top choices and what to expect from each.
Brandon Wlosinski is a 4th year Architecture student at Iowa State University, an IT intern, and an avid improv comedian. He’s also a writer at College Info Geek, a blog that helps students be awesome at college. By the way, if you’re looking to win a copy of Adobe CS5, check out the contest they’re running!
Photo: Chris Campbell