Let’s pretend you just stepped out of a UFO and are having trouble with this digital music thing. Here are some fun, easy ways to access, listen to and discover music on the Internet in 2012. Send this to your mom?
WHAT’S DIGITAL MUSIC?
Digital music comes in several forms: MP3s are the most popular, convenient option. They’re a shrunken, lower fidelity version of CD-quality audio that won’t take up very much room on your computer, and at a high-enough quality level (measured as a “bitrate”), you’ll have a hard time noticing the sonic difference on an average stereo, car or headphone set-up. Be aware, though, that you’re sacrificing some richness for distortion and should consider putting on a vinyl record once in a while — you’ll be surprised at how much more, well, musical it sounds. MP3s come in constant bitrates and variable ones, in which the quality (and file size) constantly shifts to match the requirements of the audio itself. An MP3 with a constant bitrate of 192kpbs or higher or a V0 variable MP3 is plenty, though at this point, hard drives and Internet bandwith are both big/fast enough to accomodate maxed-out 320kpbs MP3s.
Apple’s iTunes store, which is attached to the music player/library iTunes software, sells AAC files — another version of MP3s, essentially. The MP3 format is universal while the AAC is not, but if you have an iPod, iPhone or iTunes, the difference is negligible.
If you transfer a CD in full quality to your computer (this is called “ripping”), it arrives in a very large WAV format (or Apple’s AIFF). It can be converted to what’s called “lossless” audio, a format that shrinks the CD audio in half without losing quality — the leading format here is FLAC. iTunes and portable music players historically haven’t been strong supporters of FLAC, however, so you’ll need to consider alternate playback options.
LISTENING TO DIGITAL MUSIC
Once the files are on your computer, you can: A) “burn” your MP3s or FLACs on a CD; B) Put them on an MP3 player, such as an iPod, Zune or iPhone, which can plug into your car, headphones or speaker system. In case you’ve never seen one: an iPod is essentially a combination hard drive/Walkman, which can store absurd amounts of music in an extremely tiny space. It’s incredible. You have to set it up to load up the music from your computer, but once that’s ready, you just have to plug it in here and there to charge the battery and keep it up to date. C) play your MP3s in iTunes, Quicktime, VLC, Windows Media Player, Winamp or a multitude of digital media players. Winamp and Foobar are the main iTunes rivals, or at least were a few years back before everybody decided to just use iTunes because it’s easy and great.
Within iTunes, you can label the files with artist, title, album and genre information as well as a number of other fields, keep track of play counts and make as many playlists as you like. I keep individual artist playlists (I’m a nerd) in my sidebar as well as some fun “Smart” playlists that automatically sort by year, rating and so on. In iTunes’ preferences, in the “advanced” section, you can choose to let iTunes organize your files and copy them into its library automatically. This is the easiest way to do things, but it also means stuff like compilations and, say, solo projects from a band’s lead singer, might get confused depending on their labeling. I have a massive music folder on an external hard drive which I organize and add to iTunes by hand — it reminds me of sorting my teenage CD collection. This way, you can keep music in as many places (computer, external HD) as you like and still play it from iTunes as long as everything’s plugged in.
WHAT’S STREAMING MUSIC?
Up to this point, we’ve discussed files on your computer. The biggest trend right now is avoiding individual files in favor of streaming music. In this system, a file is hosted by an external computer — “the cloud” — and your computer or phone essentially “listens” to it like a radio station. The advantages of the cloud include saving HD space and access to millions of songs, but it requires a fast, stable Internet connection (sorry, plane flights and road trips), a lot of phone battery life and means missing catalog items from hold-outs such as Led Zeppelin or just older, rare albums, unofficial live recordings and so on.
Pandora, which is free, offers endless radio station-style playback based on an artist, composer or genre selection. A number of radio stations broadcast online, including great public radio outlets such as L.A.’s KCRW. Many such broadcasters offer smartphone apps, or you can use your computer’s browser.
If you’re choosier, a handful of services offer access to label-sanctioned libraries of millions of songs. Of these, I like Rdio and Spotify, in that order — Rdio’s a bit smoother. Both offer extensive libraries — everything from the new Taylor Swift single to 50-year-old bossa nova sets, comedy albums and more — available completely on-demand, like Netflix’s video streaming system. You can build a personal library, follow friends’ listening habits and save yourself mile-high stacks of dollar bills for a low monthly fee. You’re essentially renting the music and hoping the landlord doesn’t go out of business, so keep that in mind for your favorite albums. (These services pay notoriously low fees to artists and labels and hopefully won’t stand in the way of you buying a few albums a month.) Rdio and Spotify both offer $5 and $10 a month options, with the pricier one giving you phone access. Both also offer pretty lenient free options, if you’d like to road-test them, but frankly, handing Rdio $5 a month to listen to a near-complete library of a century of recorded music is the great bargain of our time.
If you’re interested in music discovery and would like to hear what songs bloggers and professional sites such as Pitchfork are posting, several sites operate as convenient aggregators and de facto trend charts. The Hype Machine is the best-known and probably the best, while others include Elbo.ws, Shuffler.fm and We Are Hunted, which all have different methods of allowing for music discovery. Ex.fm is a web-based service which allows you to keep track of blog songs in a streaming library.
Music blogs and web-based publications, which you can find via the Hype Machine, range from massive editorial projects with news, interviews, reviews and more (Pitchfork, Stereogum) to one-person taste passion projects. (Pitchfork, if you’re not yet a reader, focuses on independent music and has been the most influential driver and monitor of underground taste for a decade. It’s more popular than SPIN magazine.) Such sites offer free MP3 downloads, generally of current “singles,” as well as embedded streaming audio.
You can also find streams on a track and album basis through services such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud, which are geared toward artists and labels. Soundcloud in particular has become ubiquitous — creating a profile and “favoriting” tracks is another convenient way to build up a small streaming library. Bandcamp enables artists to share albums and so forth as free streaming audio within a storefront that allows you to purchase high-quality MP3s for download. You’ll find plenty of independent, esoteric music on these services which may have escaped Spotify and the like — you’ll also notice their embedded players on blogs.
A number of major players offer services based on your existing, purchased/pirated MP3 library: iTunes Match, Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music. This involves a somewhat intensive process of matching/uploading and frankly, I don’t bother with any of them — I’ve opted to sync my iTunes to Rdio and Spotify and I continue to carry an iPod that I plug in to my computer once a week. (I don’t play music through my phone for battery conversation, and because iPods are still totally great.)
As you can tell, there are a lot of options — keeping one unified library is difficult. I use my hand-organized iTunes library, which I depend on for rarities and blog/Bandcamp tracks, and supplement it with a monthly Rdio subscription.
STREAMING ON YOUTUBE/MUSIC VIDEOS
A recent study came out and revealed that tweens and teenagers are listening to music primarily through YouTube, the staggeringly popular video-streaming site. (This has been anecdotally obvious for years.) You can also upload an audio file without an attached image, which has led to rampant copyright infringement. However, for you, the user, playing such files on-demand is completely safe and legal. And because of this, YouTube’s library is probably the single largest public database of music in existence. The downside: many of these files sound terrible, in part thanks to YouTube’s upload conversion process.
Beyond mere MP3s, YouTube contains everything from official videos to professionally shot live performances and concert films to bootleg iPhone clips and fan covers. There is an astounding amount of great material if you dig deep enough — the BBC’s entire Laurel Canyon/’70s documentary, hour-long Elliott Smith concerts, out-of-print tracks you won’t find anywhere else and so on.
We also happen to be in a golden age of performance footage. Many independent filmmakers have been emboldened by affordable DSLR cameras and inspired by the influential Take-Away Shows, which pioneered one-take, one-shot performance videos in odd, unplugged areas. Phoenix playing in front of the Eiffel Tower, for instance. The format has been stolen/borrowed by also-terrific sites such as Yours Truly, They Shoot Music Don’t They, Big Ugly Yellow Couch, Black Cab Sessions, Southern Souls (a crucial series on otherwise undocumented Canadian musicians), Watch Listen Tell and many, many more. You could spend hours combing through these, many of which are housed in YouTube-alternative Vimeo, and I highly suggest you do. A favorite: this 26-minute Kings of Convenience set.
If streaming’s not for you, there are a number of options for buying and downloading digital music, all of them with pros and cons. Major storefronts include:
iTunes: the 800-pound gorilla. Buying in iTunes drops the music right into iTunes (duh). You can buy individual tracks and full albums. Takes a 30% cut of the revenue from the label/bands.
Amazon: Amazon offers VBR MP3s and is intent on gaining market share from iTunes, which means they offer great deals (as low as a buck for an album sometimes, with many available for $5 each month). They can also drop directly into iTunes.
eMusic: Offers a bargain rate based on a subscription model. Full disclosure: I’m a freelance contributor to their editorial side.
Bandcamp: Not so much a storefront as a sales app, Bandcamp takes a low % cut of the proceeds, allows bands/labels to set their own prices (even free or pay-what-you-want) and offers a range of file quality options. Most of the indie world’s most interesting young bands are selling their music here right now. I wrote about the service for the Los Angeles Times, if you’d like to learn more.
Many labels, such as Merge and Polyvinyl Records, also sell downloads through their own web stores. Some, such as Domino and Ghostly have started to sell via a subscription model through the Drip.fm service, which generally allows labels to provide 2-3 albums a month (available for streaming and MP3 or WAV download) along with bonus content for a flat $10 rate — a pretty good bargain if you’re a label geek.
You can also buy used CDs on Amazon for an embarrassingly low cost and rip them.
SHOULD I BUY MUSIC?
Yes, silly. You don’t have to buy all of it, relax. More about this in my post The Reasonable Person’s Guide to Buying Music.
WHAT ABOUT PIRACY?
We’re a couple years past the golden age of this already and having watched it evolve from from Napster to OiNK to Mediafire to the present, the bother now outweighs the convenience and price point. If you need access to a million songs, get a subscription service. It’s five bucks. Otherwise, private bittorrent sites, underground message boards and full album blogs are the best way to go, but you’ll have to figure that all out for yourself. (I don’t know what Usenet is and don’t care.)
THEN WHERE CAN I HEAR STUFF IN ADVANCE?
WHAT BLOGS SHOULD I READ?
Here’s a list of my favorites. It’s probably due for an update. You can get by pretty well on “relevant” stuff with Pitchfork, NPR and Jon Caramanica’s work in the New York Times, though there’s certainly a lot of weird, wonderful discovery and writing happening out there on hobbyist/independent sites. Consider, also, Tumblr, a blogging/social networking hybrid that has become a key hub for fan communities — more broadly filling a role that message boards once did and still do, to an extent.
DAVE, CAN YOU JUST SAVE ME SOME TIME AND TELL ME WHAT TO LISTEN TO?
Plug: I run a first-of-its-kind digital music club through Spotify, in which you get a playlist each week of my favorite new album, an influential classic that made it possible, and a newsletter with capsule reviews and the best links of the week, all right to your inbox. I’ll also make you a personalized mixtape designed to handpick some new favorite bands for you. First month’s free, then it’s $2.99. Tell your friends.
HEADPHONES, SPEAKERS AND MORE
O.K., you have a million MP3s to listen to! Let’s make them not sound like garbage. You should make some minor investments here. Your laptop’s built-in speakers aren’t very good and neither are iPod earbuds. For $80-$100ish, a pair of over-the-ear Sony MDR-V6s or Grado SR80s will offer a substantial improvement and a nice clear sound. I also like Etymotic’s ER6i in-ear-monitors (an earbud format that plugs your ear and thus requires less volume and future hearing loss for outdoor/airplane/gym use) — anything made by Etymotic or Shure in this department comes well-reviewed. If you’d like to spend more money and get into the world of fancy cans and headphone amps, head-fi.org is the place to start.
As far as desktop and household speakers go, I’m not an authority. There are a number of ways to integrate your digital library into your home entertainment system, however, including Sonos and Apple’s AirPlay. Or you can just plug your iPod into your TV speakers. You’ll probably want a receiver, which boosts the signal and makes everything sound nicer. We have a vintage receiver and speakers that sound tremendous — they knew what they were doing in the ’70s.
Generally, once you get into the mid-priced stuff, you’re going to be fine. Luxury speakers may sound better but probably not $10,000 better — especially if you’re playing MP3s on them. Don’t get ripped off. On that note, don’t buy Bose.
If iTunes wants to convert your MP3s to anything, don’t do it. This is called a transcode and essentially xeroxes a xerox — your tracks will now be a terrible shadow of their former, awesome-sound selves. If you find some MP3s that are particularly hissy, find them in a better format.
MORE FUN STUFF
If you want to track your listening habits, you should check out Last.fm, a very useful service that keeps all the stats you wish iTunes did and syncs with Rdio, Spotify, Hype Machine and so on. It’s also great for suggesting other artists you’ll like based on real people’s listening habits.
Spotify offers a number of interesting apps to aid in music discovery, following charts, finding lyrics and so on — Pitchfork’s and Last.fm’s are the ones I like, but there are a lot I haven’t looked at.
What else? Let me know. rawkblog at gmail dot com.
This is literally the best time in history to be a music fan. Enjoy it responsibly.
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