These days, the question isn’t where you can find free music online but where you can’t find it. You can listen to live (“streaming”) radio stations on your computer, program your own stations or tune in to sites that use “genome” technology to generate playlists based on your musical tastes.
You can store your own music on Internet cloud sites and download apps to bring these same services to your smartphone. What’s all this mean? Your music can go wherever your ears go — and you can keep your entertainment center and hard drive uncluttered. You’ve come a long way from the college dorm-room look.
Free, legal online music has been available since 1994 (courtesy of Microsoft pioneer Paul Allen), but streaming radio sites only started propagating in 2007. Pandora’s “Do It Yourself” programming option was the game changer that opened the floodgates for similar new sites. Now the offerings for rock, jazz, R+B, classical and world music are limited only by our collective imagination. (And you thought your iPod was cool.)
Here’s a look at the 10 best and most popular sites. Warning: They can be addictive.
Pandora: This granddaddy of online music sites is built on the innovative “genome” principle that gathers music (from its 700,000-song database) that it perceives as similar to your tastes then recommends other artists. Go to Pandora.com and create a “station” by typing in the name of an artist you like. From there, the site will cue up tunes from that artist and others that are similar in genre or style or are popular among other fans of this artist. Create as many channels as you want. You can also click on to other users’ channels to discover “new” music. The basic package, with commercials, is free, but for $3 a month you can get the ad-free Pandora One version (and you can download their free app for your smartphone). Two criticisms of the site are that you get only 40 hours free per month, and you can only skip over 12 songs a day.
Radio Paradise: This commercial-free, listener-supported radio station, created by Bill and Rebecca Goldsmith out of their house in, yep, Paradise, Calif., embodies the 1960s progressive-FM philosophy of letting a DJ loose in a roomful of records. Just call up radioparadise.com on your computer or phone, and you'll hear a well-blended mix of contemporary, indie and classic rock, world music, electronica — even the occasional jazz or classical number. What you won't hear are computer-generated playlists or commercials. There are no fees, but in true progressive spirit, donations are solicited on-site.
Spotify: The hot British music site, with a library of 15 million selections, has been available in the United States for about a year. Featuring everything from classical music to classic rock, spotify.com offers a free version with “adverts” and an ad-free premium version for $16 a month. Accessible on computers and smart phones, the site lets you find other users with tastes similar to yours to learn about new music.
MOG: Short for “musical blog,” mog.com boasts 14 million songs in its library. You can listen to suggested tunes or create your own favorites or playlists for free. Mog has 20 times more tunes than Pandora and offers a deeper experience with the music through informative blogs that feature music news, reviews and "albums of the week" to turn you on to great new music. There are two upgrades: Basic, for $4.99 a month, giving you unlimited downloads to your computer, and Primo, for $9.99 a month, that offers the same for computer and phone.
Rdio: A pay-for-play version of Pandora and Spotify, Rdio.com entices customers with a free grace period then asks for either a flat $4.99 monthly fee for desktop listening or $9.99 per month to download a mobile app that connects you to its 7 million–song library. Once you've download songs to your computer or phone and they're stored in your library, you can listen to them without an Internet connection. You can check out what other users are listening to or see what critics and industry execs like by clicking on a home-page banner that says “People to Follow.”
Jango: This free service, available on your computer or smartphone (by downloading its app) intelligently gathers songs from your favorite artists and collects those of other users with similar tastes. Go to jango.com and type in the name of an artist to create a station, and like Pandora, it will generate a song list it thinks you will like. You can create a public profile to connect with other users and share recommendations. Fans prefer it to Pandora because it has fewer commercials and gives you unlimited free listening.
I Heart Radio: This free app gets you access to more than 800 live-broadcast and digital-only radio stations from 150 U.S. cities and gives you the ability to browse user-created custom stations. You can’t pause or skip songs and the stations have commercials and DJ announcements, but the local flavor from stations playing alternative and classic rock, dance, Christian and even Spanish-language music is a cool way to sample a variety of music.
Cloud Music: Three of the big players that let you store your music and buy tunes are, not surprising, Google Music, Apple iCloud and Amazon Cloud Player. Each offers different plans, but if you want to clear out the CDs (or vinyl) and go virtual, this is a great way to save your fave tunes forever — or until the next technology waves rolls in.
Mike Hammer has covered music and technology for such magazines as Rolling Stone, TV Guide and Maxim. He has no idea what to do with the 1,000 vinyl albums in his closet.