Songza, 8tracks, Pandora, GrooveShark and Spotify are companies that encourage listeners to discover music in more relevant, cost-efficient and innovative ways. Together, these five online services attract a cumulative 64 million users to their websites and mobile applications. All are free, but not all are available in Canada — nor are they all legal. Apart from being great services, these products shed light on changing paradigms in the music industry. Their business plans and profitability margins vary greatly, but the underlying truth is how we engage with music and how streaming is becoming more important than buying records.
Most of these sites allow you to listen to music you don’t own for free. How is that possible? A compulsory license with groups ASCAP, BMI and SESAC which pay musicians, songwriters and labels fractions of a cent each time their intellectual property is played. No real money can be made from these royalties. Releasing these songs for the world to hear, like and share brings new fans to shows. Each website has their particular way of getting the music you might want to your ears.
Songza is a relatively old player in the music streaming and recommendation game considering its launch in 2007. But this old dog has learned some new tricks that make it the fastest-growing and attention-grabbing of the bunch.
“The idea here is that we can get you some awesome music without you having to think,” said Songza‘s founder and chief executive Elias Roman, when describing what is now known as the music “concierge.”
While other sites and apps require the user to manually choose or assemble the playlist they want to listen to, the “concierge” leads you to a playlist curated by one of their experts and tailored to the time of day and your activity. If it is Tuesday evening, for instance, one might choose “doing homework” from the six activities available for that timeframe. Turns out, a mixture of obscure genres including soft jazz and American primitivism is a perfect, steady and lyricless backdrop to pounding out that paper. Very obscure music can be perfect for very mainstream activities. Songza puts them in touch.
What’s most impressive about this company is how consumers have responded. In June 2012, four months after the “concierge” was introduced, Songza was the second most downloaded free app for the iPhone. Seventy days after it’s launch in Canada in August, 1,000,000 people north of the border had acquired it.
While Songza remains incredibly user-friendly, a couple of snags will no doubt hinder your sing-like-no-one’s-around enjoyment, if even just a little. Say you discover a really great song, which you’re bound to at any given moment, well, Songza hopes you enjoyed it the first time because there is no way to repeat any previously heard song or even parts of the song currently streaming. Blasting any length of pyroclastic flows from outside Wi-Fi range can also cost you some stacks if your cellphone plan is short on data.
Available in Canada: Yes
Favourite playlists: “Tar Beach Lullabies,” “I’m A Boss,” “Y’all ready for this: ’90s Jock Jams”
8tracks is another source of free music streaming, except this time the content is user-curated. After registering, the user can start listening to one of more than 600,000 playlists. Others can embrace their inner DJ, and create a mix containing a minimum of eight tracks uploaded from their own mp3 libraries. Oriented towards social networking, users sometimes try hard to get their choices listened to, commented on and “hearted” (akin to “liking” on Facebook). 8tracks users interact more with each other than on other services, but this is partly by choice. It was featured in TIME’s 2011 list of “50 best websites.”
At the entrance, users are greeted by the “cloud:” a collection of trending search tags. Two rounds of choices are made to refine the search. One might pair “lazy” with “chocolate” and end up listening to a playlist of exclusively acoustic covers. 8tracks one-ups Songza’s themed playlists by offering ones assembled by celebrities like of Elton John and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. The company also offers prizes and media coverage to members who enter their mixtapes into contests. It has been in operation since August 2008, and while founder David Porter held high hopes since the site’s development in 1999, 8tracks hasn’t been as quickly adopted as Pandora or its peer-to-peer predecessor, Napster. Still, it has an average of five million users per month between the site and its smartphone app.
Grooveshark is a service which takes 8tracks‘ user contribution model to a more extreme level. All of the songs available for streaming come from users rather than record labels. Imagine Limewire with a music recommendation system. Just like its file-sharing predecessors, Grooveshark is currently the subject of lawsuits asking for damages in the millions.
Available in Canada: Yes
Favourite playlists: “Folking around” by myang6, “I’ve got the Power” by jmasliah
PANDORA AND SPOTIFY
Pandora internet radio is the grandfather and poster boy for the music streaming and recommendation market. It is the most used, the most profitable and has arguably the best recommendation system. In 2011, the company made $138 million and its stock began trading on the NYSE.
Pandora initially prompts users to choose one song they wish to listen to. That song is analysed according to rhythm syncopation, key tonality, vocal harmonies and instrumental proficiency. Algorithms then produce a series of similar tracks to be played. If a track doesn’t suit your taste, you can give it a thumbs down, further refining future suggestions. Up to this summer, close to 55 million people in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand have had their tastes examined via Pandora. Only those three countries benefit from access, in part because they offer fewer constraining royalty laws. Constraint can also be felt by the user: you may find yourself listening to subtly different versions of the same music you started with. Satisfied listeners can save a playlist, which then becomes a “station” anyone can listen to.
Spotify is another service that has acquired mainstream success in the U.S. but is unavailable in Canada. This company has concentrated its effort into seamless streaming rather than recommendation of music. It requires the user to download software which in turn grants them access to Spotify‘s entire song library from your device. Think iTunes but free, and with a library 18 millions songs deep and a 2.5 hours-a-week listening limit.
Available in Canada: No
Favorite stations (Pandora): “Wicked station,” “Dubstep radio,” “Smash station”