March 7, 2012
He’s looked at clouds from both sides now…
I listen to music all day, in my car, in my office, at the gym, while walking the dog or taking a hike. Most of what I listen to I don’t have to pay for; some of it I do. There are so many ways to discover new music or find old favorites that I thought it might be useful to create a guide to the various offerings — on the cloud, the Net or on the air — these days, based on my personal experience, thus far.
Old-school radio, AM or FM, still works fine and is still free, and when my teenage daughter is in the car, we ping-pong among the hit-driven radio stations 97.1 KAMP-FM (Amp Radio), 102.7 KIIS-FM (Kiss FM) and 105.9 FM Los Angeles (POWER 106), until the ads take over all the stations — seemingly simultaneously. And while the music on 89.9 KCRW-FM is not interrupted by ads, the station does have pledge drives.
Nonetheless, most mornings I listen to KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” from 9 a.m. to noon. This show, where I discover most of my favorite new music, is best described as “adult alternative” and “world music,” and features mostly singer-songwriters and their bands, including some live performances and interviews. And on weekends, if allowed the pleasure, I try to listen to part of “Nothin’ but the Blues,” which airs on 88.1 FM KJAZZ from 2 to 7 p.m. on weekends.
Cloud-based music lockers
One of the reasons I don’t need to play my CDs anymore, or even my iPod, is because I’ve uploaded much of my music onto the Web. Google offers a music service that allows you to store a great deal of music for free. Apple, too, has just launched iCloud, which will copy music in the formats it recognizes to a (thus far) free locker. In addition, for $25 a year, its “music match” program will upload all your music to the cloud. With these services, you can access your music on multiple home, personal and mobile devices. Spotify (which I’ll discuss later in greater detail) also allows you to upload your music, but you can only access that music for free on your computer.
Internet radio and streaming music services (Pandora and Spotify)
If you sign onto iTunes and click on “radio,” you will be able to access a wide selection of radio stations from all over the country. However, not all stations travel well. I tried both WFMU, the Fordham University radio station in New York, where many of the DJs of my youth now toil, as well as WWOZ, New Orleans’ legendary music station, and I found that, much like Café Du Monde beignets, they are much better consumed right on site.
Pandora and Spotify are the two most popular music-streaming services (others include MOG, Yahoo music, Rdio and Last.fm), and the differences between them are as much generational as feature-driven. If you grew up on FM radio and like to be surprised (pleasantly) by music you enjoy, Pandora will appeal to you. Pandora allows you to create “channels” or music streams by artist or song, and then brings you complementary music. Your musical choices can be mainstream or obscure (I have a Professor Longhair channel), and it allows you to mix any of the streams you establish. It works with the same kind of algorithms that Netflix uses, basing its offerings on your previous choices. So, for example, if you create a Rolling Stones or Bonnie Raitt channel, you might be delighted, as I was, suddenly to hear an 18-minute version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
On the other hand, if you came of age in the mix-tape or playlist-driven era, Spotify might be your preference, as it allows you to upload your own music, create playlists and play any song that is in its capacious library. You can also share your playlists or songs with friends. Spotify is where I go when I know what I want to hear, say, the new Bangles record, “Sweetheart of the Sun.” Spotify recently teamed up with Rolling Stone magazine to allow subscribers of both to import all the celebrity playlists from their “playlist issue,” such as “Mike D’s Top Classic New York Hip-Hop” or “Jimmy Cliff’s Top Lost Reggae Classics.” Spotify also has just teamed up with Facebook to allow you to share music with friends and to be able to see what playlists your friends are listening to on Spotify (which may be the killer app).
It is, as I prefer to think of it, crack for new car owners. These days most cars come with free-trial satellite radio. Once you’ve tried it, it’s hard to give up — conversion rates hover around 50 percent, according to a Sirius executive. There are now more than 21 million subscribers. The cost is anywhere from $9 to $17 a month, plus tax; although you can instead get an Internet subscription for $4 a month and play it on your smartphone through your car. Satellite is, for the most part, commercial free, and the menu of offerings is vast, with channels devoted to decades (’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s), genres and subgenres (country, bluegrass, blues, jazz, metal, rock, folk), performers and bands (Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson), custom compilations, with names like The Spectrum, The Blend, The Loft, Coffeehouse and, of course, The Joint (a reggae station). What stations you listen to could soon become a pickup line, akin to the 1970s-era catch all, “What’s your sign?”
There is one other reason that many people can’t resist satellite, and its name is “Howard.” When Howard Stern departed terrestrial radio, those of us who didn’t follow him to paid radio may have thought that his moment of cultural relevance had ended. Yet satellite, its own parallel universe, reveals that Howard is still in his glory — some argue he’s better than ever. Listening to Howard, like playing golf or surfing, is all about waiting for that one unparalleled moment or experience. No one does interviews like Howard — the questions he asks and the answers he elicits are part of why he’s so addictive.
It may not all be all heavenly, but, to quote Joni Mitchell, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now.” And, free or paid, that’s where I now go to stream her music.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com.