Turn On the Web, Tune In to Your Favorite Station, Drop Down Menus

English composer Edward Elgar was a man ahead of his time, and his belief in the ethereal quality of music — “the world is full of it,” he wrote, “and you simply take as much as you require” — could easily be applied to some theories regarding the governance of it on the Internet these days. In fact, the notion of listening to music online for free is very much in the air.

So much so that I have had several friends recently ask me, “Can you recommend a good source for free online music?” The short answer to that question is an Obamaniacal “yes, I can,” which is followed by a slightly longer, more doleful answer, “of course, that depends.”

As in, that depends on what kind of music you like (jazz, metal, pop, electronic, etc.), or who your favorite artists are (Bach or Beck, Miles or MIA, etc.), or when you want to listen to music (early morning, midday, late night, etc.), or how (i.e., in what format: Windows Media Player, mp3, podcast) you like to listen, or where (at the desktop, on your iPod, etc.), or what languages you speak (other than English), or how much you know (or care) about the music you listen to (like, who wrote “Not Fade Away” anyway?), etc.

Having an opinion about such dependencies certainly will help narrow things down. But picking music is subjective at best, and it can get uncomfortably personal. For instance, having an affinity for Billy Joel might produce results like this or these from me. (An appropriate third answer to the above question might be, “Are you sure you want me to?”)

After coming up with a few individual recommendations, I got thinking that this subject might make for a good post on Scribbleskiff. So I decided to look around a little, see what’s available out there for free, and attempt to provide some broad, generalized suggestions in a variety of categories. But what I discovered is that there are literally hundreds and hundreds of options to choose from — way, way too many to list here, even in a cursory way (I do try to keep these articles under 2,000 words).

So what follows is way more limiting (and opinionated) in terms of selection, though it nonetheless covers a range of options, from the sprawling, corporate-radio-like, to the intimate, single-minded, and personalized. This is by no means comprehensive (or very well thought-out), but it might help the uninitiated get properly tuned in online.

Yahoo! Music: Yahoo’s “radio” site offers more than 150 “stations” to choose from, in categories like “R&B,” “Mood Swings,” “Adult Alternative,” etc. The experience is pretty much the same as listening to commercial FM radio (lots of ads, limited song/artist selections, etc.) but if you do a little searching and hopping around you are bound to find something to your liking. (I kept coming back to “Cool as Folk,” for what it’s worth.) In addition to choosing from among the preset “stations,” you can find and connect to radio stations in major U.S. cities. Yahoo! requires you to use its proprietary player, called LAUNCHcast, powered by CBS radio, though you can listen to online streaming music from any browser. Out of curiosity, I checked out the AOL radio site, and it offers a similar format and claims to provide access to twice as many stations.

Live 365 Internet Radio: According to the Live365 site, they are the world’s largest Internet radio network and offer 6,000+ stations “run by real people, not generated by computers or focus groups.” (Apparently, this site allows you to become a DJ and broadcast your own radio station for about $30 a month. ) The user-friendly “start here” window asks you to search for “stations that play …, e.g., Jazz, The Beatles, New York.” I typed in “Led Zeppelin” and got 413 stations. That seemed pretty cool, until I realized that only a handful played Plant and company exclusively. And though quite a few of the stations were free, most required you to purchase a “VIP membership” to hear all the songs you want. Real greedy people, I’d say.

RadioTower: What’s interesting about this eclectic site is the ability to search among more than 5,000 stations broadcasting from other countries and in different languages. For instance, I listened to an Albanian dance music station for awhile, then switched to an easy-listening station in Brazil (broadcasting in Portuguese), and then clicked on a “free-form/diverse” station in The Netherlands. That’s the epitome of a “world music” listening experience, if I’ve ever had one. All the stations play for free but require installation of either the RealPlayer or Windows Media Player.

Radio David Byrne: Ever wonder what music is playing inside musician David Byrne’s head? Then look no further than his Web site, which features a “radio station” that streams music chosen for you by him. Not surprising, it’s a mixed bag — the recent play list features “really old school gospel,” for instance. But the stream of mp3s, which is updated about once a month and then archived (and available online or via iTunes in the “Eclectic” category), provides a fascinating perspective on what interests and continues to influence the former lead singer of The Talking Heads.

If that’s not enough to get you started, then check out the Radio-Locator, which calls itself “the most comprehensive radio station search engine on the internet.” Search by city or state, country, or format for links to more than 10,000 radio station Web sites and 2,500-plus audio streams from radio stations in the U.S. and around the world.

Out of the thousands of virtual “stations” you can find using the above resources, there are two actual, brick-and-mortar stations with real, live online broadcasts that I strongly recommend. The first is KEXP (90.3 FM in Seattle), one of the best public radio outlets I’ve ever come across. I’ve written previously about my favorite DJ, John Richards, whose new-music-focused “John in the Morning” show (which airs 6 a.m.-10 a.m. PST) is something I look forward to every weekday. But the DJ mix on the whole is well-informed and incredibly wide-ranging in tastes, and there are shows for every interest, from jazz and blues to country and western swing, to dance and electronic, to reggae, Afro-Caribbean, and “wo’ pop.” In addition to the live streaming audio (which is available 24/7, with a real-time playlist complete with info about the songs and artists as well as comments by the jocks and the opportunity to buy the songs from different sources), they offer on-demand audio archives of the last 2 weeks’ worth of shows as well as live performances recorded in their studios. It’s an amazingly rich resource, available for free.

My other favorite online option is Radio Paradise, which broadcasts a similarly varied mix of commercial-free music supplied by Bill and Rebecca Goldsmith. The couple proclaim their play mix is “carefully blended together to flow smoothly between different musical styles & genres — just like real DJs used to do on FM.” For instance, on a recent afternoon, I heard The Dead’s “Lone Wolf” followed by “Friend of the Devil” covered by Lyle Lovett, then a song by the Dead-influenced Widespread Panic, etc. It’s the way I played music on the air in college and a pattern I still follow when I make party mixes. The California-based duo also offer a real-time playlist, as well as other goodies, such as a Web cam trained on the studio and listener forums for people seeking “community” with like-minded listeners. There’s little DJ chatter, the sound quality is great, you can use just about any computer audio player, you don’t need to register to listen, and it’s free. A radio paradise, indeed.

Now, if you want something that reaches beyond the live radio experience (i.e., no talking DJs, no commercials, no breaks, etc.), offering a continuous stream of music that can be tailored to suit your personal preferences and tastes, whenever and wherever you want it (after all, as Leonard Bernstein once quipped, “The joy of music should never be interrupted by a commercial”), then check out the incredible Internet outpost known as Pandora. Entering its ninth year, Pandora (the name means “all gifted” in Greek) is the offspring of the Music Genome Project, which according to the site is “the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken.” As part of the project, a team of “musician-analysts” listens to music, one song at a time, “studying and collecting literally hundreds of musical details on every song … to capture all of the little details that give each recording its magical sound — melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics,” etc. All of this information, culled from nearly 100 years’ worth of music, is stored in a vast searchable database.

So, all you have to do is enter the name of one of your favorite songs or artists, and Pandora scans its entire library of analyzed music to find “songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice.” Then it creates a “station” based on your selection, which is really an endless playlist of songs that you can rank, reject, and even buy and download. It’s fun and often surprising: the other day I typed in “William Shatner,” and got a mix of 1970s-era “songs” by everyone from Tom Jones and John Lennon to Soupy Sales and Larry Gallagher. On the other hand “Bottom Blues,” a mid-tempo jazz number originally recorded by Albert Ammons, yielded a tighter array of similar-sounding tunes by the likes of pianist Pete Johnson, swing bandleader Bob Crosby, and saxophonist Ben Webster, among many others.

It’s sometimes a little too distracting to have Pandora playing while I am working, because I find myself clicking over to see what’s playing and why — each song includes a bio of the recording artist along with a description of how it fits in with the mix. The only drawback is that, due to its licensing agreement, Pandora won’t let you select and listen to a specific song — for instance, entering “Brown Sugar” produces anything by The Rolling Stones from that era but it. And you can’t have more than one station “seeded” by a particular artist at any time. But that’s a small price to pay for access to this virtual universe of music provided for free at your fingertips.

There are several competitors out there, including Slacker Radio and Last.fm, that offer variations on essentially the same concept: recommending music that is similar to what you are playing or requesting. But I have only begun to test them out — for instance, the former seems to be merely a next-generation Yahoo! radio, while the latter has a community-development focus — and so I can’t offer you much more than the suggestion to check them out.

And, best of all, there are iPhone, Blackberry, and Smartphone applications available for most of the sites I’ve mentioned, including the incredibly powerful Public Radio Tuner, that let you listen to Internet-based music without having to be tied to a desktop computer. What a concept — a portable, handheld device that plays your favorite music and news stations wherever you go. What will they think of next?

As always, leave a comment about this week’s article. What’s your favorite free online resource for listening to music? Did I miss any major sites? Does anyone prefer to pay for streaming audio?

8 comments

  1. Aich,

    Nice sleuthing. All this music of the spheres reminds me of Thelonius Monk’s middle name. You also remind me of the truly old guy into which I’ve grown (note the onomatopoeia). Like the universe, my musical references continue to expand, but at an exponentially slower rate than your own, because my listening habits likely fit neatly between those of Elgar and Bernstein, which is to say a platter at a time, with interplatter rumination of some duration. In that interval I fancy I hear the inaudible hiss of the universe. It’s rather like the sound of tape in between songs. Billowulf

  2. Quite an exhaustive list you’ve go there! I’m listening to the Pandora playlist in iTunes right now. Thanks bro, great music!

    Too bad you are so damn far away, I’d love to make music with *you* again. 🙂

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting, Doug. Be sure you check out David Byrne, too. And, believe me, there are many, many reasons why it’s too bad we live so far apart now, and making music is definitely at the top of the list. Perhaps we could install some kind of software that would let us “virftually” jam once more — got Garage Band?

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