Album sales continue to plummet — down 15 percent last year from 2006, according to Nielsen SoundScan — but music is more ubiquitous than ever. Sales of digital-music tracks from services like iTunes and Amazon.com continue to be a bright spot for the record industry. Last year, 844.2-million tracks were bought, up 45 percent from 2006, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The shift to the Web hasn't caught on with people who feel that they don't have the time or the technical know-how to track new music online. But to reach casual fans, several Internet sites have developed easy, typically free ways for music lovers to cut through the clutter: music search engines, music-streaming sites and music-based social networks. For those looking for ways to reconnect, here are some options:
Simple streaming music
"There is such a glut of wonderful opportunities nowadays," says Richard Factor, a 62-year-old electronics industry executive living in Kinnelon, N.J. An avid psychedelic-music fan, Factor discovered a 1960s band called Plastic Cloud using Pandora, an Internet radio station — basically a music-streaming Web site that plays songs based on listeners' preferences. Pandora and Jango, for example, are commercial-free sites that let users enter an artist's name or a song title into a search bar. Then the site creates a "radio station" that plays similar music. So type Miles Davis into one of these sites, and you might hear selections from Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. You can rate songs to fine-tune what type of music is played. Since these are free streaming sites, users can't look up a specific song title and play it. And while the songs can't be downloaded, both sites have links that will take you to iTunes or Amazon.com. Launched late last year, Jango was created for aficionados and casual fans, says Dan Kaufman, Jango's CEO. You can dive deep into the site if you want or "you can be lazy and still get a great experience," he says.
Music search engines
Music search engines work like Google and Yahoo, except that they look specifically for audio recordings on Web sites, including personal pages and blogs. Examples include SeeqPod, Songza and SkreemR, all of which are free. They're not the best way to discover new music, but they can help you find a song you haven't heard in a while or a title someone recommended to you. For example, punch "Norwegian Wood" into the search engines to get a list of links to the Beatles' song and versions by other artists. Click on the song title to play it instantly on your computer. Sarah Perez, a 32-year-old blogger who writes about technology from Tampa at
sarahintampa.com, likes to listen to a song using Songza before she decides if she wants to buy it. "By being able to listen to entire tracks, you can make more informed purchase decisions when you're actually ready to buy music," Perez says. The search engines seek out songs in digital formats on Web sites. Not all the songs have the best sound quality — some even being raw recordings taped by a concertgoer. (For users, listening to tracks online is okay; but downloading copyrighted material without the publisher's permission is illegal.)
A number of music sites are integrating social-networking functions into their sites to share music. Some of the biggest players include imeem, Last.fm, iLike and MyStrands. These sites feature libraries of music and videos that users can browse and play. Some of the songs are available only in 30-second snippets, while others are full-length. Just like Facebook, the popular social-networking site, users at these music sites can set up profile pages, add a photo, tell a little bit about themselves and declare their musical tastes. They can also make "friends" with other site users. These music sites offer rich ways to discover new tunes — through recommendations based on the music you like and by interacting with other members from around the world. There are also tools to track which songs or artists are popular on the networks. Last.fm lets you look up other music fans based on their age, gender, interests and musical tastes. You can view other people's profiles to see what they have been listening to. Gregorio Montejo, a
26-year-old graduate student studying theology at Marquette University, has been using imeem for a year, spending four to eight hours a week on the site. The biggest drawback, Montejo says, is that a lot of the music he is interested in is only available in 30-second snippets. These sites have lots of features and getting used to them can be time-consuming. They may not be the best option for people with tight schedules.