MP3 Downloads and Streams for a Song

How to Save on Music OnlineThe last time I checked -- oh, about 20 seconds ago -- I have 1,981 songs stashed on iTunes in my MacBook Pro. Ah, the perks of being a former music critic; all the CDs I own fill five of those huge, 30-gallon Sterilite tubs in my basement.

But can a music-mad journalist and studio musician ever have enough melody packed into his smartphone? And can you, for that matter, afford to be without affordable music you can download at a moment's notice?

OK, so I can tell you all about the history of the MP3 file format. (Once upon a time, a German scientist named Karlheinz Brandenburg helped develop it for motion pictures in the 1990s). But do I know much about the best MP3 bargains out there? Well, you might say on that score, I'm the pocketbook equivalent of tone deaf.

That established, being a music junkie has its advantages -- mainly that I'm very, very motivated to learn all that I can about the ins and outs of music downloading on the cheap. Or, if you prefer, think of me as John Lennon singing, "Gimme money! That's what I want!" Hey, I sure as hell would like to... except you can't find The Beatles on any music download service. The legal ones, anyway.And with that musical intro, let's launch this latest installment of the Savings Experiment. By the way, I want to send a shout-out to some of my fave MP3 perks, right here on AOL: Spinner's MP3 of the day, and AOL Radio's Free MP3 Download. While we're at it, let's not forgetthe AOL Music Weekly CD Listening Party, AOL Radio, SHOUTcast and AOL's ultra-groovy Winamp 5.57 Media Player. Awesomely tuneful!

On the surface, Rhapsody offers what seems to be a sweet deal: Pay one flat monthly subscription fee, and listen to all the music you want on your laptop or mobile device, out of a catalog of some 9 million-plus songs. But when i did my digging, I found some flies in the Rhapsody ointment (more on that in a bit).

Here's how it works: You get a free subscription for 14 days, and after that pay $9.99 a month (Rhapsody Premier) or $14.99 a month (Premier Plus). The only difference is that the Plus version allows you access from 3 mobile devices or MP3 players instead of one. Otherwise, you get unlimited online listening in a library you set up on Rhapsody; "subscription downloads" are also unlimited, but I had trouble identifying exactly what a "subscription download" is. Otherwise, it appeared to me that most downloaded MP3s that you want to own still cost 99 cents (technically, 69 cents to $1,.29). You can also stream music, too.

My brief experience with Rhapsody made me feel like I'd just listened to one of those obnoxious Ting Tings songs about 100 times in a row. There's plenty not to like if you're a Mac user, as everything -- from the Rhapsody player itself to the visual interface for managing your music files -- is really made for PC users.

What's more, navigating the site for those "unlimited subscription downloads" proved fruitless after an hour. From everything I could see, it still costs you money to download songs to own on Rhapsody. It's a great deal, admittedly, if you want to set up an online music library with gajillions of songs for one flat fee. But guess what? You don't own the songs. Cancel your subscription, and that library becomes locked (though Rhapsody will offer you Premier Plus for just $9.99 if you try to go away).

So far as I could tell, this means you have to keep paying and paying monthly fees to hear your music. And like so many music fans, I just want to get my songs, move them around the way I like and be done with it; if I want "free songs in a library," I'll borrow CDs from the public library and burn them to iTunes. Speaking of which ...

I give the folks at Apple a lot of credit; in the days after the record industry shut down "Napster 1.0" (remember when songs on Napster were free?), no one thought a paid download service for MP3s could work. Hooey. Not only does iTunes work, but it also takes a minimal amount of learning curve to use. I could teach my 5-year-old daughter to download from iTunes. I am still waiting for a Ph.D. (Dr. Feelgood, I presume), to show up at my house and tell me how to navigate Rhapsody.

We all know the model by now; you can download most songs on iTunes for 99 cents, and albums $9.99. Of recent, premium songs now go for $1.29, and premium albums $12.99, but hey: There's no subscription model to worry about, and the application for your computer or smarthphone doesn't cost anything. At last count, iTunes featured more than 13 million songs -- and with Home Sharing, you can browse the iTunes libraries of up to five authorized computers in your house, import what you like, and automatically add new purchases made on any of the computers to your own library. I'm liking that hook, baby.

I also like that the iTunes player on my laptop can patch me in straight to the iTunes store, though I do find the iTunes "music genius" feature to be somewhat of a pain. I once asked it to make me a mix, from my library, of punk rock. Somehow, a mellow acoustic track got in there. Talk about harshing my mosh.

What's more, the iTunes app forms the all-important bridge between the music you buy and the music you already own. I love that the system allows me to take songs from my CDs and stuff them into the same library that my purchased MP3s reside. This strikes me as how most of us listen to music, as opposed to some website on the Internet that stores music for me, divorced from my CD collection and the MP3s I spawn from it.

The search functions of iTunes couldn't be easier or more thorough. I recently had a bee in my bonnet to find a lost Lightning Seeds album (lost to me, anyway) that I first heard in Hong Kong in 1996. It was a sublime pop masterpiece, and in many trips to record stores since -- including an HMV in London -- I could not recall or discover its title. But after 45 seconds on iTunes, I found it: "Jollification." And about five minutes of downloading later, I owned it.

But is iTunes the cheapest option on the block? Hardly. Let's explore some other music services.

Rolling Stone Magazine called eMusic, "The cheaper, cooler cousin of iTunes." Then again, Rolling Stone also once rated Prince's "Little Red Corvette" as a better all-time single than The Beatles' "Hey Jude." So let's see if we can get some journalistic clarity and objectivity happening here.

True, eMusic has a sizable library, but not as big as its competitors (more than 7 million tracks). And the service has its downfalls; monthly downloads that you pay for in their subscription model don't roll over if you fail to use them. That's harsh, considering that they have your money already.

Still, the pricing levels (which work like cellphone plans) are hard to beat. All the options below give you 45 free downloads the first month:

* Trial: 25 free downloads in seven days, yours to keep

* Basic: 24 songs for $11.99 per month (50 cents per song)

* Plus: 35 songs for $15.89 per month (45 cents per song)


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* Premium: 50 songs for $20.79 per month (42 cents per song)

* Connoisseur: 75 songs for $30.99 per month (41 cents per song)

Aye, music matey, Connoisseur's your best value if you subscribe -- but remember, you'll have to average five downloads every two days to make this monthly option work to its fullest. Let's say you slack off and only download five songs in a month. Then you'll pay a whopping $6.20 a song. Talk about music piracy!

Let's face it: Napster will never be the headline-grabber it was back in the day when, as the scrappy creation of college student Shawn Fanning, it gave away all that music for nothing. Today it's owned by Best Buy. Sheesh. Still, the world's first peer-to-peer file sharing network has evolved into a legit place to buy songs, with more than 10 million titles in its catalog. The plans work like this, all allowing you to listen online to the entire catalog:

* Annual Pass: 60 MP3s for $5 a month ($1 a song plus online listening)

* 3-month Pass: 15 MP3s for $5 a month ($1 a song plus online listening)

* 1-month Pass: 5MP3s for $7 a month ($1.40 a song plus online listening)

Similar in price to iTunes, Amazon's MP3 service offers most songs between 89-99 cents; most albums are between $5.99 and $9.99. One handy feature is the the Amazon MP3 Downloader (available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux); this helper application allows you to download entire albums with one click and automatically adds your music to iTunes or Windows Media Player. It also has ongoing $5 album specials featuring artists such as Katy Perry, John Mayer, Kings of Leon and Norah Jones.

Pandora has come a long way since I first reviewed it for the Chicago Tribune in 2006. For the uninitiated, Pandora is based on the Music Genome project, which develops playlists for you based on suggestions you feed into it. There's an iPhone app for it, too, and I'm happy to report that it also deserves a thumbs-up review. You'll have to sign up for a Pandora account (it's free) and play with the program a bit to get the hang of skipping some of Pandora's suggestions to get the right mix for you. But once you're acclimated, Pandora will feed you great music with all the obedience of a four-star waiter. Plus you can buy the songs you truly love. Compared to Rhapsody, it works more like a radio station, or a monstrously huge iPod on shuffle.

You get free streaming of music for up to 40 hours a month on Pandora. Unlimited streaming costs $2 a month.

Here's a great option for folks who like to be their own deejays. Grooveshark is a playlist-based program that's free; if you want to operate it via smartphone, it costs $3 a month. You not only create your own lists, but can view other people's song lineups, too. Signing up is a snap, and the user interface is elegant and simple to use -- a walk in the park compared to Rhapsody. (Do you sense a theme here in my dislike for Rhapsody?) I had music going on Grooveshark, signup and all, in less that 90 seconds. You'll have to mess with it a bit to get the hang of playing and uploading, but in less time than it took to write this paragraph, I was grooving to the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" -- and had a Beach Boys playlist going.

Is there a catch? Well, you can operate an iPod or anything you download without wireless or Internet access. But in the case of Grooveshark -- as well as Pandora, Napster's online listening and Rhapsody -- you need that all-important web connection. Otherwise, you'll be singing the "Can't Get No Cyber-satisfaction for My Eardrums Blues." By yourself. With not so much as a cowbell to keep time.

Then again, there's always that Sony Walkman collecting mold in your basement.

The eMusic subscription model has the best deal going for paid downloads, so long as you remember to use up all your downloads in a month. For its ubiquity and enormous library, iTunes comes in second; let's hope Apple adopts some sort of similar subscription model in the future, though it's not likely.

Grooveshark really lives up to its name in terms of the free streaming services, though I would have to say that if you like serendipity and expanding your musical horizons, I would well advise you to give Pandora a shot. I love it.

A final shout out to the streams of two of the coolest alternative-oriented radio stations in America: KCRW-FM in Santa Monica and WXPN-FM in Philadelphia. These eclectic outlets have done more to broaden and deepen the tastes of music lovers everywhere that any FM spots I can think of -- plus WXPN has the dulcet-voiced Michaela Majoun, whom I've had a "deejay crush" on for years. If you have a smartphone, download the free apps for WXPN and KCRW now, and prepare to have the folks behind those stations rock your world.
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