Choosing the Best Online Music Service

Okay, it’s time for me to finally say goodbye to my portable disc player, and join the online and portable music revolution. Okay, the revolution isn’t so new any more, nor is my computer, but as I wade through the sea of options for how to download music, listen to and buy online tracks, I grow more eager to get my feet wet and eventually suit up to take the plunge. But I happen to be a bit more practical than that. So, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the last few weeks trying to determine what’s best for my lifestyle, my wallet and my computer.

First thing I realized when searching all of the music services is that things seemed to work a lot smoother with a broadband connection (and most services seem to point that out from the get go). Just like my CD Walkman, the time had come for me to lose my ancient dial-up connection to the online experience. It actually turned out to work in my favor as my cable company gave me a good deal on high-speed, and also threw in a discount on my existing costs for cable TV.

Now that I was “connected” at an acceptable speed to the Web, I had to determine, what I was trying to get out of the online music experience. After some intense melodious soul searching, I realized that the only thing the separated me from the perpetually hip is perhaps the types of music I was searching for, and the amount of time I wanted to spend online searching for music.

The guy who sits next to me has a 60 GB iPod, and is complaining that it is almost full. That’s over seven thousand songs. I don’t know that I would even live long enough to listen to that many songs. My needs were simpler. I had an MP3 player still in the box from two Christmas’ ago, and it promised to hold over 500 songs. That would be perfect for me, at least in the short term.

Next, what was I looking for in my new online music experience? Did I want to listen to music on my PC, in my car or on my MP3 player? Yes to all three. Did I want to listen to the radio while I was on my PC? Again, yes. Did I want to trade music with others online in a peer-to-peer Napster-like environment? Eh, that one scared me a little, and I decided that opening up my files to strangers made me feel dirt, so I put that one on hold.

My next stop in determining how I would “music online” was price. I searched dozens of sites and services, but narrowed my sights to three of the big guys: AOL Music Now, iTunes and Rhapsody Music Service (provided by Real Networks).

I already had AOL, so I signed up for their Music Now product for $8.99/month (that’s in addition to their monthly fee as an ISP). I was able to download songs, listen to them while “offline” and burn them to CD or move them over to my MP3 player for an additional fee per song. That seemed to be standard across most of the services. Music Now was a follow up to the original AOL Music Net, which I actually liked better because it ran locally on machine and the new Web-based Music Now takes much longer. AOL also has a partnership with iTunes, so you can be on AOL, but iTunes will launch and then you’re actually in the iTunes application. It’s confusing. If I want to move my downloaded songs to my MP3 player, the monthly fee jumps to $14.95 per month, and if I want to put them on a CD, I pay and additional 99 cents per track. This is too much money for me. I typically buy one or two CD’s a month, and that would be cheaper than this online service. Not to mention you have to be an existing AOL member (more money per month) in order to even use the product. I’m passing on AOL Music Now.

On to iTunes. Okay, so there is no monthly fee for iTunes. Love that. And I can purchase songs for 99 cents per track. Love that too. But wait. I don’t have an iPod, and iTunes has songs in their proprietary MP4 format. Ugh. The cheapest iPod out there is around $99 (so much for no monthly fee), and it’s not the model I would select. I like my MP3 player. If I already had an iPod, this may be the route I would go, but Apple tends be very inflexible, and I hate to be tied to one provider, player and format. There is also a limit to how you can share the songs on your home network. I feel like even though I own the song, I’m being watched on what I do with it. Good bye big brother.

Rhapsody Music Service from Real Networks. So far they are the least expensive. $9.99 per month and that’s with unlimited access to over 1.3 million songs. I do have to have pay the additional 99 cent fee if I want to burn to CD or transfer to my MP3, but that is the industry standard for paying the artists, and the monthly fee is five dollars less per month than AOL. The music comes over in the more widely supported MP3 format and the songs are mine to rip transfer or share with my other computers on my home network. Like the other two, I can listen to live radio on my pc, but I like the freedom I get with Rhapsody Music Service. I’m not being watched, and the music is mine.

Now that I know how to download music and have chosen Rhapsody Music Service, I’m on my way to joining the new world of portable digital music. I’ve already burned several CD’s for my car, albeit with an older man’s twist on today’s favorites, and transferred those same songs over to my little antiquated MP3 player for those long weekend walks.

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