Music for Free – Comparing Nine Free (and Legal) Online Music Options

Right now, there are a ton of legal ways to listen to music online for free. Sure, you can buy mp3s so that you have complete freedom in terms of when and where you want to listen, but if you just want a radio-like service with a bit of control, there are many free options online for listening.

Which one is best, though? It really depends on what you’re looking for. Over the past few months, I’ve tried out several services, each with a unique mix of pros and cons. I found all of the services here to have some unique merit, but each person will find one that clicks with them.

Note that the pros and cons of each service are current as of right now. The online music market changes pretty regularly, so these recommendations might not be precisely accurate a year down the road. However, if you’re listening for free, it’s pretty easy to switch services.

In order to highlight each service, I’m going to point to a specific artist, album, or station that I like that you can listen to on that service.

Spotify

https://www.spotify.com/

How Is It Free?

Ads. That’s the simple answer. Spotify injects ads into your listening experience, making it feel a lot like listening to a normal radio station. In fact, that’s what Spotify feels like to me – a radio station where I can control the playlist to an extent. You can listen as much as you’d like with ads.

Also, you’re restricted to enjoying specific artists, albums, and playlists in “shuffle mode,” which means you can pick the artist or the album (or someone’s playlist), but when you listen, they play the tracks in random order. It does generate interesting playlists based on your listening history, though.

What’s Good About Spotify?

Spotify has an enormous music selection, perhaps the widest selection of any free service. I like to listen to Americana music and the artist selection goes really deep in that genre. The interface is very easy to use and I can usually find exactly what I want pretty quickly.

What’s Bad About Spotify?

If you go for the premium version, it can be expensive. It’s not the easiest one for discovering new music, either – I mostly find new music on Spotify from friends linking to stuff. Also, it’s heavily integrated with Facebook, which is appealing for some, but not so much for others.

Get Spotify If…

Your music tastes run deep into the obscure stuff and you don’t mind a “shuffle” mode when listening to songs by a particular artist or album.

The Avett Brothers on Spotify

The Avett Brothers are one of my favorite musical acts of all time. I don’t even know how to describe them – Wikipedia remarks that “the Avett Brothers combine bluegrass, country, punk, pop melodies, folk, rock and roll, indie rock, honky tonk, and ragtime.” Spotify features nearly their entire discography on there, including my favorite album by them, Mignonette. I often just turn on The Avett Brothers at Spotify and just let it play all afternoon.

Pandora

http://www.pandora.com/

How Is It Free?

Like Spotify, Pandora’s free version is ad-supported, but you can pay for a premium version without ads. The free version also seems to take “breaks” every once in a while, which seems to be from periods where Pandora’s overall usage is peaking, likely to save Pandora money on their bandwidth costs. The paid “Pandora One” service doesn’t have these breaks (or at least doesn’t have nearly as many).

What’s Good About Pandora?

The music service is curated, meaning that a lot of junk is filtered out, and it does a spectacular job of finding new music for you that matches your tastes. I really like the ability to set up a station based on an artist I like (it’s as simple as just typing in the artist’s name), listening to songs by that artist and ones that Pandora identifies as similar, then giving “thumbs up” to songs I really like and “thumbs down” to ones I don’t.

Over time, you can end up creating a really good music “station” that matches your tastes really well. I would be very sad without a few of my stations that I’ve curated over a long period of time.

What’s Bad About Pandora?

The song catalog isn’t as large as other services. You start to really notice it after a long while because your curated station will start to cycle a fairly small set of songs all the time. It does take a while to reach that point, though.

Get Pandora If…

You like the idea of having random songs that are very well matched to your personal tastes appear for your listening pleasure – and you have the ability to veto ones that don’t match so that your preferences evolve over time.

Old Crow Medicine Show on Pandora

Old Crow Medicine Show plays a wonderful mix of mountain music with modern themes mixed with bluegrass and rock elements. When you listen to Old Crow Medicine Show on Pandora, they’ll share other music on that station, such as bands with more of a country flair like The Steeldrivers, old school stuff like Johnny Cash, and acts with a harder edge like Hank Williams III.

Rdio

http://www.rdio.com/

How Is It Free?

As usual, this service is made free by ad support (inserting audio ads into your listening experience) and, as usual, there’s a premium version without ads. I found the ads on Rdio to be relatively innocuous compared to some other services. The free mobile app is unusual in that it offers only a certain selection of “free” stations. While most of these services do appear to have limits on free usage (capping you to so many hours of listening for free each month), I seemed to hit Rdio’s pretty quickly. Of course, I actually really enjoyed using the service, so I may have used it more than I realized.

What’s Good About Rdio?

It has my favorite application of all of these services in terms of ease of use and ability to discover new music. While all of the services have a strong selection of well known music and top hits, once you dig down, I’ve found that Rdio tends to have a surprisingly good selection of obscure artists that are either self-published or from independent labels.

What’s Bad About Rdio?

It has a pretty large music selection, but not as large as Spotify. I have only found a couple of instances where a song I wanted to hear was in Spotify but not in Rdio, though. I think Rdio doesn’t include some songs from more obscure musicians on major labels, passing on them to have lots of independent musicians. In the relatively short time I’ve used it, I’ve found a surprising number of really good but rather obscure musicians due to Rdio.

Get Rdio If…

You like discovering an occasional independent music gem mixed in with all of the standard stuff you know you like, so that you’ll be the first to hear of it among your friends.

Muse on Rdio

Muse is a progressive rock band that sometimes uses electronic elements and often has a flair for the bombastic. Rdio offers Muse’s full catalog of recordings and some live shows and has helped me discover similar great bands like British Sea Power and Ours.

Slacker Radio

http://www.slacker.com/

How Is It Free?

As with everything else, it’s free because of ad support. The ad support here is extensive, though, with both visual ads and audio ads and sometimes DJs talking in such a way that it feels like an ad. It actually reminds me a fair amount of FM radio.

What’s Good About Slacker Radio?

Other than the ads, it has the best overall quality of any of these services. There are more than 200 “stations” to listen to – stations are a lot like normal radio stations, but they’re “curated,” which means that the playlists are much longer and usually better. Plus, you can listen to albums and artists to your heart’s content. The number of available songs is also impressively large, comparable to Spotify and larger than many other services I’ve listed here.

What’s Bad About Slacker Radio?

Ad-mageddon. Slacker Radio has the most ads and the most intrusive ads of any free experience, at least from what I’ve seen and heard. That’s really the only drawback of this service, because in every other regard, I’m a pretty big fan.

Get Slacker Radio If…

You don’t mind ads as a healthy part of an otherwise stellar music listening experience.

Americana on Slacker Radio

The Americana station on Slacker Radio is just amazing. It’s loaded with artists I love like Johnny Cash, Old 97s, and Ryan Adams (and, yes, Old Crow Medicine Show and The Avett Brothers), but it’ll sometimes pop out new things at me like Donna the Buffalo or Randall Bramblett, both artists I’ve discovered thanks to Slacker Radio.

Grooveshark

http://www.grooveshark.com/

How Is It Free?

Grooveshark’s business model is completely different than the other services I’ve mentioned here so far. The content there is entirely user-created, which means that they don’t have to load down your audio with tons of ads or restrict how you listen. They make their money from display ads and from referrals from online music sellers (as every song you listen to usually has links to places to buy it so you can permanently add it to your collection). There is a premium account that gets rid of the display ads and allows you to listen on your phone (the mobile app isn’t free).

What’s Good About Grooveshark?

There are lots and lots of independent artists on there (yes, along with major labels with lots of familiar music). In terms of discovering new music, Grooveshark is the place to be. You’ll find tons and tons of new stuff to listen to. There are also some great curated playlists on there and the social features are really amped up, which means you can easily find people who are into the same types of music that you are and discover what they like.

What’s Bad About Grooveshark?

Since everything is uploaded by users, it can be a free-for-all at times. People mislabel songs and often upload music that they don’t have the rights to. Grooveshark pulls those songs off of the service as they’re discovered, so a song you heard yesterday might not even be on there today.

Get Grooveshark If…

You want an ad-free audio experience that’s a music free-for-all with lots of social features.

Matisyahu on Grooveshark

Matisyahu is a reggae artist who discusses themes of Orthodox Judaism in his music, though over time listeners can hear his spiritual growth and changes in spirituality and philosophy through his songs and themes.

The selection of Matisyahu’s music on Grooveshark shows both the greatness and the problems of the service. It includes a ton of his music and many of his albums, but it’s lacking his most well-known album Live at Stubbs (though Shake off the Dust… Arise contains most of the same songs). However, it’s all presented ad-free

Jango

http://www.jango.com/

How Is It Free?

Jango is very similar to Pandora in that it’s centered around personally-created online radio stations that are paid for by the inclusion of advertisements in the audio stream (and occasionally visual ads, too). What makes it different is artist promotion – the service tries very hard to promote the artist that you’re listening to (most of the time). (They don’t even offer a premium service.)

What’s Good About Jango?

Their ads seem to primarily focus on promoting new musicians, which is better than telling me about the latest products. The entire service seems to center around the promotion of new musical acts, which is a good thing (for the most part). I’ve found out about a few interesting musicians because of this. Their interface is very bare bones and simplistic, which I like.

What’s Bad About Jango?

While their advertisements are mostly focused on promoting musicians, it’s pretty clear that they do directly promote musicians in the music you “randomly” get. For example, if you see a big flashy ad for a particular artist, there’s a good chance you’re going to hear that artist featured a lot.

Get Jango If…

You want to know more about the artists you’re listening to with a Pandora-like experience.

Vampire Weekend on Jango

Vampire Weekend is a mellow pop/rock band with uptempo music that draws on all sorts of things, sometimes using strings and African polyrhythms. I particularly enjoy the wordplay in their lyrics and the upbeat music.

Vampire Weekend’s page at Jango shows you the good and bad of what Jango offers. It offers you a nice selection of music from Vampire Weekend and branches off into related artists (like Discovery, Fun., and Sleigh Bells), but it also sometimes interjects artists that seem barely related and show you a big ad for them. This seems to happen about once an hour or so.

Songza

http://www.songza.com/

How Is It Free?

Songza’s music service seems to be entirely funded by display ads, which means that audio advertisements won’t interrupt your listening experience. I believe they have experimented with audio ads in the past, but I never heard a single one while experimenting with the service. As usual, there’s a premium service that does away with those display ads.

What’s Good About Songza?

What stood out to me about Songza is how they offered music that was curated to match my mood – and their curated picks actually matched really well. They had great selections for writing, for having a cookout, and for pretty much any situation or event you might think of, plus you could break them down by genre, too.

What’s Bad About Songza?

The song selection isn’t particularly deep. It’s hard to compare the size of libraries alone because they don’t tell you the full story (an extra two million obscure songs in genres you don’t listen to do not make much of a difference), but it felt like I heard repeated songs fairly often. It’s also not particularly good at song discovery unless something new to you pops up in a curated playlist.

Get Songza If…

You want music curated to your mood and situation that isn’t interrupted by audio ads.

Coding Music on Songza

The thing that really hooked me on Songza is their selection of playlists designed to complement the art of computer programming. I find that the music there does a really good job of encouraging me to get into both a writing mindset and a computer programming mindset (though I don’t do the latter too often these days).

If you find yourself needing to “lock down” for creative work that doesn’t involve the use of your ears, try some of those curated playlists.

Soundcloud

http://www.soundcloud.com/

How Is It Free?

As with Grooveshark, it’s free because the music is almost entirely user-submitted, meaning that the service can mostly rely on display ads.

What’s Good About Soundcloud?

It’s an amazing repository for remixes – that seems to be their focus. If you enjoy people creating remixes of songs or mashing up multiple songs, you’ll like what you find here. It also has splendid social features, which enable people to share discoveries easily and, best of all, comment on them at specific locations throughout the songs (the big thing I liked about Soundcloud).

What’s Bad About Soundcloud?

It’s often chaotically organized. You basically have to rely on people who have assembled playlists on there to find anything because it can be really difficult to find specific music on there. The major record labels tend to police Soundcloud, too, and request takedowns of anything they feel they have rights to, which means stuff disappears all the time. It’s exciting, but it’s really chaotic.

Get Soundcloud If…

You’re really into song discovery, artist discovery, and remixes in a social environment.

pomDeterrific on Soundcloud

pomDeterrific is a user on Soundcloud that makes these incredible mash-ups of songs old and new, creating surprisingly good songs. You can check out pomDeterrific’s stuff here. I love the artist’s ability to choose songs both old and new and from such disparate genres and somehow make them work together.

I particularly like Call Me a Hole, which is a mash-up of Nine Inch Nails’ Head Like a Hole and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. I also really enjoy Blurred YMCA, a mash-up of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and YMCA by The Village People.

Youtube

http://www.youtube.com/

How Is It Free?

Youtube is entirely supported by advertisements, both display ads and video ads (with audio). You “pay” by seeing (or hearing) those ads.

What’s Good About Youtube?

There’s a jaw-dropping amount of music on there and you can find almost anything on there with a simple search. The recommendation engine – the videos listed off to the side – is actually pretty good at showing you relevant related stuff. You can easily create your own playlists, too.

What’s Bad About Youtube?

Ads. Many videos feature video advertisements on the front end that you can’t skip, which means you’re hearing an ad in between every song or every other song. That can get rather annoying.

There’s also the problem of bandwidth. Since you’re playing videos there, you’re downloading a lot more data than you are with other streaming services.

Get Youtube If…

You just want to curate your own list of old favorites to listen to over and over again with minimal fuss.

Simone Dinnerstein on Youtube

Simone Dinnerstein is a classical pianist who just evokes something within me. I don’t know what it is, but I find her pieces to be deeply soothing and yet somehow also really engaging. Her Youtube channel provides many, many examples of her musical works, mixing both live performances with her recordings in a great mix.

Final Thoughts

There really is no best service. It depends on what you’re looking for.

If I’m looking solely at free options and I’m willing to overlook ads, if I had to choose just one service, I’d probably choose Slacker Radio. It’s the most full-featured in terms of stations, artists, and interface.

If you don’t mind listening to what someone else provides as a playlist and just want something to match your mood, Songza is probably the best option.

On the other hand, the most full-featured premium option is probably Spotify, though Rdio is impressive. Both of those services tempted me to sign up for their full-featured services, because they go above and beyond just removing ads.

I will say this – almost all of these services reward using that service for a while. I’ve found that the longer I stick with one service, the better the customized stations get and the better I get at identifying stations and playlists and users that I will enjoy.

There’s a flood of music just waiting out there for your ears, all legal and all ready for you to enjoy.

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