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Online Music Streaming: What’s Best for You?

From Spotify to Zune Pass, SPIN takes a look at the best (and worst) places to hear music online.

Evan Serpick // July 21, 2011

Spotify finally launched in the States last week, making it the top contender to dominate the already crowded field of music-streaming services. But that doesn’t mean the dozen or so prominent options – from Rhapsody to Grooveshark – have become instant dinosaurs. Most still have pros (and some cons) that would appeal to a specific type of music fan. Which one’s best for you? SPIN breaks down the top services.


What It Is: An iTunes-like service for PC, Mac, or mobile that lets you stream more than 13 million songs (including every major label) and create and share playlists.
Best Features: The sleek, user-friendly interface rules. And with the premium model, you can access your playlists and streams even when offline.
Worst Features: The free version is ad-supported and littered with pop-up ads and snippets of mostly terrible songs you didn’t choose (i.e, ads and promotions).
Cost: There are three options: The free, ad-supported model; $4.99/month to skip the ads and get “radio mode;” and the $9.99/month for mobile access to playlists, off-line streaming, and exclusive content.
Perfect If You… Like Pandora (see below), but want more control.


What It Is: Personalized streaming radio station and recommendation service based on the wisdom of the Music Genome Project.
Best Feature: The recommendations, which are based on comparing dozens of criteria of new songs with tracks you like, are often uncanny (like Dan Deacon? Try Architecture in Helsinki).
Worst Features: Limited catalogue (800,000 songs), annoying ads, and limited skip-ability on the free version.
Cost: The 99-cents-per-month premium version is ad-free and skip-enabled.
Perfect If You… Are obsessive compulsive when choosing playlists for parties and would prefer to, you know, actually party.


What It Is: A relatively new subscription service from the tech whizzes behind Kazaa and Skype.
Best Features: No ads, complete control over your playlists, and well-designed social media functions.
Worst Features: No free option.
Cost: $4.99/month.
Perfect If You… Are looking for a straightforward, relatively cheap subscription service.


What It Is: A social media and music-recommendation service that uses data from like-minded users to find tunes you’ll (hopefully) like.
Best Features: “The Scrobbler,” which offers data on song popularity, frequency of plays, and other data.
Worst Features: Recently discontinued direct on-demand streaming.
Cost: Free.
Perfect If You… Like to meet people based on their musical tastes, have a bigger deficit than the U.S. government.


What It Is: The granddaddy of subscription services, with a straight-up $10/month fee to stream all the music you want, whenever you want.
Best Features: The “To Go” tier allows subscribers to load compatible mp3 players with as many Rhapsody tracks as they like, and is compatible with major mobile platforms.
Worst Features: No free option.
Cost: $9.99/month.
Perfect If You… Are willing to pay for unfettered access to a vast, 11-million-song catalog. You also haven’t gotten your Spotify invite yet.


What It Is: Streaming radio, with thousands of programmed stations and the ability to create personal ones, like Pandora.
Best Features: Unlike Pandora, there are unlimited song skips, and with premium memberships, users can create stations filled entirely with a single artist and play albums in track order.
Worst Features: Audio and banner ads in free service.
Cost: Ad-supported service is free; $3.99 a month for Slacker Radio Plus, which allows single-artist stations, or $9.99 for Slacker Premium Radio, for song-by-song programming.
Perfect If You… Are obsessed with discovering the next buzz band.


What It Is: The only peer-to-peer service (a la Limewire and old-school Napster) to cut a deal with the major labels for access to their catalogs.
Best Feature: Multi-source downloads (“swarming,” like torrent sites) makes it fast and easy to get tunes.
Worst Feature: The free version only allows access to non-copyrighted songs and videos.
Cost: “Premium” membership allows unlimited sharing and downloading for $7.99/month.
Perfect if you… Don’t want to risk a prison sentence to file share.


What It Is: A web-based, ad-supported service that allows users the rare opportunity to search and stream any tune in its 7-million-song catalogue, on-demand for free.
Best Features: Users can “follow” each other to discover new music from like-minded listeners.
Worst Features: The ads can be annoying and it’s not (legally) available for iPhone or Android.
Cost: Grooveshark Plus ($6/month or $60/year) is ad-free and has other benefits; Grooveshark Mobile ($9/month or $90/year) moves the party to your phone.
Perfect If You… Want to hear a specific song right now.


What It Is: Subscription service that allows users to stream and download unlimited songs as long as subscription in valid.
Best Feature: It’s got a cool recommendation app called Smart DJ.
Worst Feature: When you end your subscription, you lose most of your “downloaded” music (you are allowed to download 10 tracks per month “for keeps”). You also need to own a Zune (hah!).
Cost: $14.99/month, $149.90/year.
Perfect If You… Still watch movies on Betamax.


What It Is: The O.G. P2P has morphed into an on-demand subscription service with some nice features.
Best Feature: The last 100 songs played – plus any others you designate – are automatically saved to be replayed off-line.
Worst Feature: No free option.
Cost: $5/month for subscription service; $10/month for mobile subscription.
Perfect If You… Harbor ill will towards Lars Ulrich.


What It Is: A search engine that scours other sites for audio and video streams.
Best Feature: The site has compiled a database of more than 75 million songs.
Worst Feature: The quality is unreliable and it exists in a legal gray area: It’s unsanctioned by the labels, but it doesn’t actually host any music itself.
Cost: Free.
Perfect If You… Want a service that’s the digital equivalent of crate digging in a thrift store.


What It Is: The video search behemoth that, ironically, is often the best bet for finding audio quickly and easily.
Best Feature: No signing up, no logging in, no subscription, just search, play, and link.
Worst Feature: Uneven audio quality at best; dubious legal status.
Cost: Free.
Perfect If You… Want to be the first to hear the Born This Way leak.

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