Once I owned music. Now I rent it.
The advent of MP3s and online sharing through early illegal services like Napster and legal stores like iTunes pushed our music into digital form. Many of us have accumulated thousands of pieces of music in our collections and spend a lot of time organizing, cataloguing and tediously moving those files on to the various computers, MP3 players, tablets and phones that litter our lives. It's a lot of work and, if you purchased these songs legally, expensive. There might be an easier way: enter the music streaming service.
In Canada, the major music streaming services are Rdio, Slacker and Deezer, with Xbox Music Live and Sony's Music Unlimited as dark horses. (Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio and other services from south of the border aren't available here.) They offer streaming access, which require you to be connected to the Internet, to vast libraries of music. Most offer free plans, supported by on air ads, and premium paid plans that dispense with ads and include features like free downloads of individual songs that will play on your devices as long as you remain a subscriber. Monthly prices are $10 a month or less, the average cost of one online album. Think of it as Netflix for music.
I've been experimenting with the free version of Slacker and the paid version of Xbox Music. I recommend both.
Slacker has an app available on every platform I own, including through the web, my Windows Phone, my Android and Windows tablets and my Xbox 360. It claims 10 million songs in its library and 200 curated stations covering popular and niche genres. The free version of Slacker allows access to those stations, which are ad supported and sound much like conventional radio minus DJs. Slacker also will generate custom stations based on song, artist or genre and it works pretty well in my experience. Often I'll discover new tunes, sometimes I'll get the worst crap imaginable. A station I created just now based on Bruce Cockburn generated a playlist that included Lyle Lovett, James Taylor and Leonard Cohen, so not too shabby. Except maybe James Tayor.
Slacker offers three tiers of service, from free to $10 a month that allows you to download songs that will work as long as you continue to be a Slacker subscriber. You can find it at slacker.com.
Xbox Music is one of the best streaming services in Canada and the least known. Chances are you have the basic service now and you didn't realize it. Anyone who owns a Windows 8 computer or tablet gets Xbox Music for free (look for the Music app tile) from a library that claims 30 million songs. Ad-supported streaming is unlimited for the first six months and limited to 10 hours a month after that unless you upgrade to the paid version. If you don't have Windows 8, you can get the same deal through the web version of Xbox Music.
With Xbox Music, you can listen to specific artists (all of Bruce Cockburn), albums (Humans) or individual songs ("Rumours of Glory"). As with Slacker, Xbox Music's Radio feature generates playlists based on specific artists. Selecting Bruce Cockburn once again produced a playlist with Bob Dylan, John Prine and Jackson Browne. I can live with that.
If you opt for the paid version of Xbox Music ($10 a month or $100 a year), you get unlimited, ad-free streaming on Windows 8, through the web, on your Xbox 360, and apps on Windows Phone, iOS and Android. More interestingly, you can download any of the songs in the Xbox Music store to your devices for playback as long as you continue to be a subscriber.
It's that notion of subscribing to music that's the biggest change from simply buying or "borrowing" online. I still buy music online, from iTunes and other sources, but I've come to appreciate the ability to "rent" music, to download anything I want from the Xbox Music store and listen to it as much as I want without having to outright purchase it. That comes in handy when you need specific genres of music, such as Christmas tunes, that you might need for specific occasions but otherwise wouldn't be caught dead buying. It also allows you to follow through on impulses to investigate an artist or genre thoroughly and download huge chunks of music without making a lot of expensive decisions. Or stealing it. It does mean letting go of the notion of owning everything you listen to. But for $100 a year for effectively unlimited music, it's a decent tradeoff.
Barry Link is editor of the Vancouver Courier and a geek enthusiast. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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