It occurred to me the other day that I’m frequenting a lot of music sites these days and sharing some of my favorites could make a good and hopefully helpful post.
Last.fm is sort of a lot of things rolled into one. At its core is the audioscrobbler plugin, a little program that you download and install on your computer which tracks all of the music you listen to through iTunes, WinAmp, Windows Media Player, etc. It can also track iPod listens, which it scrobbles as soon as you sync your iPod to your computer. This creates an enormously valuable (and interesting) database of your listening habits, which last.fm uses to customize radio stations for you. I tend to find their artist and tag-based radio isn’t quite as good as some of the others – not as customizable nor as accurate as Slacker or Pandora, but it does scrobble immediately, which makes it painless if you’re a heavy user of the scrobbled data. Once you’ve scrobbled a lot, the “my library” radio is gold, though. Plus, its large community of music lovers and multiple ways to integrate with other sites are unmatched, so I tend to make last.fm the center of my online music world.
Things you can do with last.fm: Get the plugin and scrobble music from your computer. Listen to the radio. Find out about bands – most bands have a good biography section. Watch music videos and concert footage (ported from YouTube). Write posts about music and comment on any song or artist, or any user’s profile or post. Link it to your Friendfeed (only songs you “love” are included – if you want to add everything you listen to, add the “recently listened” feed as an RSS feed). Add it to your Facebook. Put a widget on your website. Automatically post your weekly top artists to Tumblr. Get the iPhone or Android app. And more.
Though Pandora now has artist information and user profiles, it focuses on an extremely simple and fun to use personalized radio. You start by telling it an artist or a song you want it to base a station on, and it uses complex musical algorithms to find other songs that are musically similar. This is different from last.fm, which uses combined user statistics to create its radio stations. I think Pandora’s works a bit better, but it’s also more likely to choose more obscure artists. The thing that really throws Pandora over last.fm for pure radio is that you can add multiple artists or songs to your station – note that this increases the range of the station, though, not decreases it (it will find artists like Rilo Kiley OR Jay-Z, not artists that are somehow like both). You can also fine-tune the station by giving each song a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and Pandora will modify its choices to take that into account. (Liking or banning a song on last.fm only affects that song, not the station as a whole, as far as I can tell.)
Things you can do with Pandora: Listen to it. Get the Firefox extension that scrobbles your Pandora plays to last.fm. Link it to your Friendfeed (songs you “favorite” are included). Get the iPhone app.
Slacker is currently my favorite internet radio site. It doesn’t have much else besides the radio (very brief artist information, no social interaction), but that allows the radio functionality to shine. It comes preloaded with a bunch of stations based on genres and time periods, and sometimes some special ones – based around the lineups of specific music festivals, for example. If you create a custom station, you can add lots of artists, and if you add at least a certain number (around fifteen, I think), you can set the station to only play from those artists. You can also set different levels of discovery (how often the station plays artists you didn’t explicitly choose), obscurity, age (newer songs or older), and favorites (how often it plays songs you’ve marked as favorites). This level of granular control means I hardly ever hear songs I don’t like on Slacker. The biggest down side to it is that there’s a LOT of flash on the site, which can make it run slowly. I highly advise using Firefox with Adblock Plus installed when using Slacker – otherwise the sidebar ads make it hiccup for me most of the time.
Lala’s gone through a number of incarnations in trying to find a way to provide a valuable user experience without pissing the musical labels off too much. Currently, they’re allowing you to upload your music library to their servers, which lets you listen to your music from any internet-connected computer. They are also selling music, with an innovative twist – you can buy and download a track for 99 cents, the standard iTunes price, or you can buy the track and listen to it on lala whenever you want for 10 cents. Otherwise, you get thirty second previews of songs you don’t already own. Anything you upload, you get full access to, of course. The interface is iTunes-like, which is nice and intuitive, if a little slow to load, and I used Lala a lot at work when I was between iPods and just wanted to listen to whole albums of my own music. However, I haven’t done much more with it, largely due to the lack of integration with last.fm. Still, as an online version of your music library, it’s pretty impressive. And when you rip a new album to your computer, the Lala uploader automatically detects and uploads it, which makes it super easy.
Things you can do with Lala: Get the uploader and upload your music (this will take a while the first time). Listen to your music on any computer. Buy and download tracks, or buy them to listen to on lala.
Songbird is a little different from the others in that it’s actually a combination media player/browser – a full program download rather than a site. It’s built on Mozilla code, just like Firefox and Flock, but it adds media player functionality that makes it a viable iTunes alternative. They’ve actually come out with the first real release recently (developer builds have been available for a couple of years), which I’ve heard is really great and I really need to play with. The main draw for me is the way the media player integrates with the browser so that you can “play the web.” This works great for mp3blogs or other sites that have a lot of mp3 files on a single page – Songbird pulls all the music files into a player at the bottom and you can play them all as a playlist and download them with a couple of clicks. Now that most blogs use flash players so you can listen to the songs direct from the page, it’s not as big a deal as it used to be, but it’s still a nice touch if a page has a lot of files.
These sites could go under “listen” as well, since they all offer the ability to listen to music. But they’re more focused on finding new music than on listening in general, so I separated them out.
The Hype Machine especially straddles the line between “listen” and “discover.” It’s basically a radio/playlist drawn from mp3blogs around the net. It highlights the most posted, most shared, most listened-to, yes, most hyped tracks on the internet. Mp3blogs are some of the best places to find new music, and the Hype Machine aggregates the best of the best. It’s also a good place to find mp3blogs to subscribe to yourself.
If the Hype Machine is the mp3blog-verse’s aggregator, elbo.ws is its search engine. That’s a bit facile, since Hype Machine also has a good search engine. But if I hear a random, obscure band (say a local opening band at a small gig) and want to get some more music by them, elbo.ws is the first place I look. It’ll search mp3blogs for postings of the artist/song and most of the time you’ll be able to find it to download. It’s not always foolproof, because a lot of mp3blogs remove the songs after a certain amount of time to encourage people to buy the music, but you’ve got a much greater chance of success than most other avenues.
And now for a few of my favorite mp3blogs. I’ve been a big fan of You Ain’t No Picasso for years now. They’ve turned me on to more bands than I can name, and while some other blogrunners have changed their taste and left me behind, You Ain’t No Picasso somehow manages to change MY taste along with theirs.
One of the more well-known mp3blogs – I don’t find their taste meshes with mine quite as well as You Ain’t No Picasso’s, but they’re definitely solid and worth checking often.
Another well-known one, My Old Kentucky Blog is good at posting video as well as audio, which is good to see. They’re so good at it, in fact, that they launched a sister site called Laundromatinee devoted to videos of exclusive recording sessions. I like My Old Kentucky Blog, but I LOVE Laundromatinee.
As much as I hate MySpace on principle, I have to grudgingly admit that it’s still one of the major resources for finding out about bands, especially indie and unsigned bands. You can find every band on there, basically, check out a few of their songs, often videos, and a lot of times it’s the first and best place to look for tour info.
As I just mentioned, MySpace is usually the best place to get up-to-date tour and concert information. But if you don’t want to go through all your favorite bands’ MySpaces every few weeks to see if they’ve posted new concert dates (and who does?), Songkick is the answer. When you first sign up, let it scrape your iTunes library and get a list of artists you listen to. Then narrow it down to ones you’re actually interested in seeing live, and Songkick will monitor your bands and shoot you an email whenever one of your tracked bands are playing near you. I can’t tell you how many concerts I’ve only known about because of Songkick. You can also search by city and see each band’s full schedule, so you can find out about acts you weren’t tracking or see what’s going on in other places.
Basically the same deal as Songkick, lets you know about upcoming concerts from your favorite bands. I like Songkick a lot more, though – Sonic Living somehow usually decides to send me alerts about bands I’ve never heard of, I suppose as recommendations based on the bands I’ve told it to track. However, on the one time out of ten that it is a band I’m interested in, Sonic Living usually beats Songkick to my inbox by a couple of days, so if speed is important to you, you might want to check it out.
There are some others in this space – I think iLike does concert-tracking pretty well, but I haven’t used it outside of the Facebook application. Last.fm will also keep track of events, but they don’t always have everything (the events section seems to depend on user contributions), and I’m not sure how good their alert system is. Basically, I use Songkick almost exclusively for this, and I’ve got no complaints.
Again, last.fm has a high quality knowledge base and is a plenty good place to find out information about bands. But here are a couple of other places I hit up when I just need some facts.
There’s also an allmovie and allgame in the same network, but allmusic is the only one I ever frequent. It’s pretty straight-forward info, but it’s usually where I go first when I need to know, like, which album was such-and-such a song on first, or who are all the artists that have covered such-and-such a song. I won’t claim to verify its accuracy or completeness, but it’s a good resource to add to your bag o’ resources.
Though it’s obviously much more than a music site, Wikipedia has some really nice music pages going on. You can usually find band lineups, discographies, history/biography, info on critical and popular reception, etc. I hate going to concerts without knowing, like, the names of all the band members, and I usually hit up Wikipedia to find out stuff like that. Not that you couldn’t find that out on allmusic or last.fm, but Wikipedia has these nice infoboxes in the sidebar that make for really easy scanning. I mean, if they’ve got a good entry on the band in question.
I don’t care for Pitchfork’s reviews most of the time (they’re not only often wrong, but the tone is usually pretty snotty), but I keep them in my feedreader because they often have early news on upcoming albums and tours, and samples of new tracks. If anyone has other suggestions for good news sources, I’m all ears.
Yes, folks, listen and sample all you want, but please buy some stuff eventually. Actually, if possible, buy the stuff at concerts, because the artists get a bigger cut that way, but when that’s not possible, here are my favorite spots to score some digital tunes. (I need to stop writing late at night – I’m getting seriously cliched over here.)
I’m an Amazon fangirl anyway, but their mp3 store pretty much blows all the other options out of the water. It runs a little cheaper than iTunes (usually $7.99 for an album rather than $9.90), all the tracks are DRM-free, and the interface is as easy as anything ever. They also run really good deals quite often, so keep an eye on that – at the end of last year, they had 50 of the best-reviewed, best-selling albums for $5 each. Can’t beat that. Well, legally at least. And that’s what we’re talking about.
Amie Street has one of the most innovative and promising business models in the industry – songs increase in price with demand, up to 99 cents. So the more people who download it, the more expensive it is, but it will never go up above iTunes prices. I’m not proactive enough about it to really get the good deals, but I’ve gotten good enough ones – Belle and Sebastian albums for $5 or $6 bucks, lesser known bands for $2 or $3. There’s also a recommendation system that earns you money to spend on songs, but I haven’t used the site enough to really get into that. The point is, if Amie Street has artists you want and you put the energy into it, you could make a killing. They do have mostly indie and unsigned artists, so you many not be able to find exactly the songs you want, but if you can, you likely won’t find a better deal anywhere else.
emusic is using the subscription model, where you pay a flat rate for 30 tracks a month – it basically comes down to like 25 cents a track. I subscribed for a while and was very happy with it – I only let my subscription lapse because I was letting most of my subscriptions lapse at the time to save money, and I’ve been getting my music fix other ways since. But it’s a great service, and though they, too, focus on indie bands, they’ve been around long enough to get a really good catalog. emusic was one of the first sites to guarantee DRM-free tracks, probably two years or more before anyone else was selling straight mp3s. That alone garners my respect, and I hope that they continue to thrive now that everyone else has realized the failure of DRM.
Fine, fine. iTunes was the first to convince music labels to go digital, albeit with DRM, and they’re still the biggest digital retailer out there. Now they’re supposedly committed to going DRM-free, and to offering high quality audio files, but I’ve pretty much got a bad taste in my mouth from their support for DRM and I tend to avoid them if there’s any other possible legal way to get music. Even though there’s not really that much reason to avoid them any more. And I do still run across things that are only available from the iTunes Store, so it’s good to keep them in mind.