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Dealing with online music overload

Posted: October 14, 2011 4:50 p.m.
Updated: October 17, 2011 5:00 a.m.

An interesting personal statistic (one I didn’t realize until a few days ago): I have been out of the radio broadcasting business for longer than I was in it. I actually passed that landmark more than a year ago. I worked at radio stations, on and off, for 14 years, ending in the summer of 1995. That was 16 years ago. Where has the time gone?

Growing up, there were three ways for me to listen to music: vinyl long-play (LP) and 45 revolution-per-minute (rpm) records, cassette tapes (I never bothered with 8-track for some reason) and the radio. I started working in radio in December 1980. Compact discs (CDs) didn’t come along, for me, anyway, until 1987. I bought my first one -- Bruce Hornsby & The Range’s “The Way It Is” a year after it had been released. I remember being amazed at the clarity.

CDs were the gold standard (platinum?) for years. Although digital music players were around in the early 1980s, they didn’t really catch on until Apple introduced the first iPods in 2001. Six years later, the company introduced the iPhone and we all started to listening to music on the same device we called Mom with.

Along with the iPod and iPhone, Apple also brought us iTunes -- a way to store music on our computers. We could even take those old CDs (yes, they’re old now) and copy them into the program. That way, you could listen to your favorite music wherever you are: home, work, jogging around the track or driving in your car.

Now, there are even more ways to store and listen to your music than ever before. Online services are beginning to compete with iTunes with various amounts of success.

My favorite is Spotify. Spotify’s been around a few years in parts of Europe, founded in Sweden three years ago in October 2008. The company finally opened up its program to U.S. music lovers in July by special invitation; it has opened up to the general public since and is heavily integrated with Facebook. I was able to snag one of those early invites and have enjoyed it ever since.

Here’s the appeal. iTunes allows you to both purchase songs for download and copy your own collection to the program. With iOS5, which came out last week, you can “store” your music in Apple’s “iCloud,” allowing you to re-download any music you’ve already purchased or copied. That’s great, but what if there’s a new album I want and I’m a bit short of cash this week?

Spotify has access to 15 million tracks across all genres. More than likely, you can find what you’re looking for. Download the Spotify program to your computer and you’ll have access to all that music and your iTunes tracks in one program.

A bit of confusion lies in what free Spotify users get. Free users have to put up with advertisements (which aren’t really that intrusive), but I’d heard there was a time limit, too -- perhaps 10, or maybe as much as 40, hours of music per month. I’ve never been cut off and the website mentions time limits in some places but not in others and never exactly how much. Maybe they got rid of that. Free users can also use Spotify -- again, through their computer -- to access the service from any other country for up to 14 days.

Where Spotify makes its money is through its unlimited and premium accounts. For $4.99 a month, an unlimited account takes off the ads (and any time limit they might still be imposing). Free and unlimited account holders can also use Spotify’s mobile app, but only to search (not play music from) the Spotify library and play and sync their own music.

Premium accounts, for $9.99 a month, has a lot to offer -- you can stream any Spotify hosted track on your mobile device; you can even download tracks to your computer or smartphone and play them back offline. And, like the unlimited account, there’s no ads. You can also use Spotify outside the U.S. for as long as you like. There’s also enhanced sound quality and exclusive content. Unfortunately, times are tough right now and I don’t need to plunk down the equivalent of $120 a year for all those bells and whistles.

A possible intruder to the mix is Google. Currently in beta and only open by invitation (yes, I got in for some reason -- think they know I’m a news guy? Nah.), Google Music might be trying to combine what iTunes and Spotify offer. Google Music takes your current collection of digital music -- several formats are supported -- into its version of “cloud” online storage and allows you to add free tracks Google provides through its Magnifier service.

Google Music also has a mobile web app. I can use my iPhone’s web browser (not a dedicated app like Spotify’s or iTune’s) to access my collection and play back tunes wherever I go. There’s two problems, though. I have a lot of music, in excess of 5,000 tracks. To take advantage of the mobile access, I’m having to upload the entire collection. As of Thursday, I had uploaded more than 4,500 of them -- after two weeks. It’s been a slow, torturous and sporadic process.

Problem No. 2 is that the mobile web app is a little buggy and dependent on the speed of either WiFi or 3G cell phone services. Switch from one to the other and it might cut off a song. I’ve also had Google Music suddenly switch to the next song before the first one’s done.

Android users have an actual app dedicated to the service; no surprise since it runs on Google’s smartphone operating system. I would love to see them team up with Apple to make one for iPhones.

For now though, I think I’ll stick to using Spotify on my laptop to listen to either new music, music I no longer have on CD or vinyl (which I don’t have a turntable to play, anyway) and iTunes to listen to my original collection of digital tunes.

I’m sure there’s other ways to listen to music in our digital world; if you know of any, let me know.

By the way, I tried listening to a Columbia radio station in my car the other day. I didn’t like some of the music and annoying static started to creep in.

Ironic isn’t it? This former disc jockey has become a bit of a digital snob.

I guess 16 years really is a long time after all.

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