…And They Said Radio Was Dead

When I was a kid, if I wanted to hear a particular song on the radio, the only option I had was to pray that it would come on as I played the lottery with the dial. It wasn’t ideal, but you took it for what it was, and you were thankful for it when the first few electrified, muddy strums of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” found their way through the speakers (although, for me, it wouldn’t get much farther than that, because my father preferred the stylings of Rod Stewart over Kurt Cobain). The times have changed, that is for certain. Gone are the days when making a mix tape took hours of sitting and waiting and recording next to a stereo. Everything is digital. Everything is on demand. Convenience is king.

With the new millennium, radio began to die. Around the year 2000 culture changed and shifted, and people listened to the music they liked and chose to like. Thanks to this thing we call the Internet, music was in the hands of the people. Unfortunately, this gave rise to piracy, on a wide scale, with the biggest platforms being Napster or Kazaa. Suddenly, everyone was a “pirate,” not because it was the “cool” thing to do, but because it was easier, faster, and far more convenient than any legal avenue of obtaining music.

Gabe Newell, CEO of the widely successful game developer and digital distributor Valve, said it best in an interview with The Cambridge Student, “Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. For example, if a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24/7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country three months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable.”

The recording industry suits have been running around with their heads caught off for years, throwing money at anything that promises to fix the leaks (literally). They may have found an answer. Over the past few years radio has evolved. Sure, there are still terrestrial radio stations everywhere, but quickly they are being artifacts with the advent of online radio and music subscription services. There are of course pros and cons, but more and more, people are beginning to move towards these platforms. The biggest draw is of course freedom. Subscription services like Rdio (pronounced are-dee-oh) and Spotify literally have millions of high quality tracks in their catalog, which can all be accessed and listened to within seconds. While this may not completely remedy the problem of piracy, it certainly offers some much needed relief (especially considering Grooveshark’s latest battles), and a new perspective on a viable way to approach the distribution of music.

So, for those buccaneers that want to put down their cutlasses and join the growing number of legal music listeners, I have some recommendations for where to start.

Spotify:

Spotify is growing at a rapid pace, with 2.5 million subscribers and 15 million songs. For me, this is my first choice, as the service is versatile (available on your computer or mobile), well integrated, and fast. Spotify boasts what they call “seamless streaming”. It works by pulling small pieces of songs from other users who already have them in their libraries, which allows the application to respond with remarkable speed. Additionally, the application is well designed and its user interface is smart and sharp. Spotify has three different memberships: free, unlimited, and premium. Premium membership ($9.99/mo) has the most perks–most notably the access to the platform’s mobile application–but it also allows users to take their playlists with them and to listen offline. Similar to premium, unlimited membership ($4.99/mo) features no ads and no limit to the amount of songs one listens to, however you won’t be able to bring Spotify to your mobile device, which in my opinion is a big drawback. Free membership is more of an acquaintance with the application, allowing the user to listen online with advertisements, but still having the “seamless streaming” of the massive library. I’d highly recommend Spotify to anyone, and aside from the price, which is comparable to other subscription services, I really don’t have many other complaints.

Rdio:

With a library of over 12 million songs, Rdio is definitely a contender. Rdio integrates more of a social atmosphere into its service than some of the others companies, and allows the user to follow recommendation-offering “influencers” like Sub Pop Records or Vice. Its platform is sleek and quick, and in my opinion is the easiest to navigate. The biggest downside is that there is no free membership, just a 14-day trial. While the trial does let you jump in and see what it’s like, it might not be enough for some. Rdio offers two tiers of membership: web ($4.99/mo) and unlimited ($9.99/mo). Web membership, as the name states, only allows the user to listen to Rdio while at the computer–either on its website or through its desktop application. Unlimited membership offers a little more convenience and options. With the unlimited membership, users can connect Rdio with their mobile devices along with Sonos, Sony’s wireless home audio player, and Roku, which allows digital audio and video to be relayed to a television. These options make Rdio attractive in its convenience, but there are a few kinks to work out with its interface. I expect good things to come with this service.

Pandora:

Pandora is a “music recommendation service,” essentially as an online radio platform. It has less versatility than subscription services, and has a much smaller library than Spotify or Rdio, clocking in at a little over 800,000 songs. The upside to Pandora is that it’s free and offers mobile use at no extra cost. Pandora is different from subscription services in that the user cannot pick the individual track or artist on demand. Rather, the user can create a “station” based around a particular track, artist, or genre. The user can further program this station by adding artists or songs, and also by liking or disliking songs that are played. Pandora has a few holes, for instance one can only skip six songs per hour (per station). Unlike terrestrial radio, however, it does offer much more variety, and in a way, it is personalized. For a free service, there’s nothing to lose.

Slacker:

Slacker Radio offers the ability to customize “stations” according to the user’s preferences, in a similar way that Pandora does, however it infuses aspects of traditional radio by offering more than 100 programmed stations, including news, comedy, and sports. The layout and user interface is somewhat patchy, but is still relatively easy to use. Slacker also does have a fairly large library, with over 2.4 million songs. Aside from free membership, there are two other options: Slacker Radio Plus and Slacker Premium Radio. Plus ($3.99/mo) gives the user access to syndicated stations, such as ESPN and ABC News, and also does away with the ads. Premium ($9.99/mo) bridges online radio with more of a music subscription service and allows the subscriber to choose music on demand, rather than creating a station based upon a track or artist. For that reason, Slacker is more attractive.

MOG:

MOG offers the subscriber with over 14 million songs to choose from. The users can either choose exactly what they want to hear, or listen to MOG’s radio feature. Additionally, users can find new, recommended music based upon their tastes by turning on music “discovery” mode. I like MOG’s user interface because it’s very easy to use–both the desktop and mobile applications. MOG offers three different types of membership: FreePlay, Basic, and Primo. FreePlay allows the user to access MOG through it’s web player and play individual tracks, albums, and artists, and also make playlists. Basic membership ($4.99/mo) gives the subscriber the ability to use the desktop application and to put MOG on various home entertainment devices, such as Roku. Primo membership ($9.99/mo) expands usability to the users’ mobile devices. MOG is a top competitor, and has consistently aimed to better itself and give the subscriber more choices and greater freedom.

With more services like these that are throwing their hats in the ring and consistently pushing the line of competition forward, the companies are giving rise to greater innovation and ingenuity, while at the same time giving the user more options and choices. Sometimes I’ll reminisce about those old, trying days when people still knew what the word “analog” meant, but really I’m glad that I don’t have to make sacrifices to the radio gods in the hopes of hearing that song that had been perpetually stuck in my head for hours.

We live in an age that no longer requires us to eat exactly what we’re given to eat. The idea of being spoon fed my music taste is something that gives me chills, and I’m glad that we now have more freedom in choosing what we want to hear.