Thursday, December 4, 2008

And you don't stop!

So, I went back and forth on this latest entry for my Urban Thought Collective blog, Check The Tech-Nique. First I was going to review some netbooks (Asus EeePC, Acer One, HP Mini-1000, etc). But a few days later, fresh from setting up my Home Theater PC, I was all set to talk about Boxee and the new online TV options that are cropping up (Hulu, et al). And in the end, my focus for the next few entries *will* be online media, but I have decided to start with music rather than TV or movies. My reasons are primarily selfish. :-) I tend to blog about the tech issues that are having the most impact on my life at the time. And right now, I am spending four days a week driving and living out of hotels. With so much windshield and hotel downtime, my music has gone from an important part of my life, to CRITICAL to my sanity. So, today, I am going to talk about the online music options that are available, some of the differences between them, and which ones are the best of breed regardless of your particular tastes.

DISCLAIMERS:
  • I am a die-hard, unapologetic underground hip-hop fan.
  • I have not listened to the AM/FM radio in five years.
  • I don't buy CD's, only MP3's
  • I don't own, nor will I *ever* own, an iPod. I *do* own an MP3 player.
  • I listen to more sheer hours of music per day than any other person I know
  • I LOVE music. Passionately.
Now that you know where I'm coming from, are we good? Awesome. So, for the online music novice, the playing field is divided into a couple of different categories. The first is your basic streaming radio station. The second is what's called a music recommendation service. Today, I'll be discussing the first. A streaming internet radio station is similar in concept to a traditional radio station, with some notable exceptions. AM/FM radio stations broadcast music or talk that focuses on a particular genre (i.e., sports, R&B, oldies, etc). Internet radio is similar in that respect. However, the key difference is in the loyalty to that genre. Internet radio has a MUCH tighter genre focus. If you want salsa, there is an internet radio station somewhere out there streaming all salsa, all the time. The really cool thing about the genre loyalty is that lots of artists that get zero airplay on traditional radio, end up with a ton of exposure on internet radio. For example, any serious underground hip-hop fan could tell you that Aesop Rock is one of the most gifted lyricists to ever pick up a microphone. Or that MURS is quite possibly the savior of modern hip-hop. Neither artist has ever been played on Power 106, Kiss FM, or Hot 97, but internet hip-hop stations can't get enough of them! The other key difference is commercials. Even though almost all internet radio is free of charge, most stations don't even play commercials. Or if they do, it's like one commercial an hour. Did I mention that most internet radio is also uncensored? So far, so good, right? Tight genre focus, no commercials, uncensored, and free. What's the downside? Well, unless you are ready to shell out some serious $$$ for an exotic specialty product, internet radio is tied to your computer, and you need a broadband internet connection. Don't get me wrong, products like the Squeezebox are slowly bringing internet radio to the unwashed masses, but it's still a niche market right now. Your best bet is to hook up some speakers to your laptop and call it a day. Internet radio in your car is still a geek's solution. So, if you're still ready, I'm going to run down a few internet radio index sites that will let you search for different individual stations. I will also recommend a few stations that I listen to on a daily basis.

Index Sites
  • Shoutcast - This is the granddaddy of all internet radio. Started by AOL almost 10 years ago, Shoutcast is the one-stop-shop for most net music surfers. It's easy to navigate, generates reliable results, and your music is only a click away.
  • 000Audio - A relative newcomer to the scene, but they've got a lot of stations hooked up. The stations are all medium sound-quality, though. As opposed to Shoutcast which lists a range of sound-quality from CD down to AM radio.
  • Live365 - Another oldie from the 90's. They use an ad/subscription-based model. You can pay to listen to music ad-free, but if you don't, you end up subjected to the same Trojan condom commercial every 20 minutes. Seriously guys, at least rotate commercials. I understand that your sponsors are limited, but maybe record a *few* different ads instead of that same one with the pig squealing about the condoms (yes, it's true). I still give Live365 an honorable mention because one of their stations includes the most awesome beatbasement, one of the few quality underground stations out there.
  • 1Club.FM - Another newcomer. They've got a bazillion stations listed, and they are free, but you do need to signup for their newsletter.
Streaming Stations
  • Smoothbeats - There can only be one. This is, in my humble opinion, the absolute best underground hip-hop station on the internet. I've been listening for six years and counting. They broadcast in CD-quality 24/7 for free with zero ads (unless you include a few station sweepers an hour). They even do some live DJ shows. PLEASE listen to them.
  • Beatbasement - Even broadcasting in AM radio quality, I will STILL listen to them. Hell, I used to listen to 1580 KDAY when I was a kid, and I didn't even know the difference!
  • Club 977 - The 80's - I include this only for my wife who is a die-hard 80's rock fan. If you need a fix of Phil Collins or Robert Palmer, this is your station.
  • Rhapsody - Yes, I know they are a commercial company. But their service is actually really cool. For a $15/month subscription, you can stream any song in their library ON-DEMAND! And they have a HUGE library.
In two weeks, I will review the most popular music recommendation sites and tell you which ones are worth your time and your hard earned cash.
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