It took me a while to get into Internet-based "streaming" music services. But I've finally warmed up to the idea that music files don't have to be something that I physically possess.
And streaming music services have finally gotten to the point where they offer enough value to offset the occasional interruptions in play or the intrusive ads.
I've been exploring some of the lesser-known features of streaming music services like Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio and Beats Music. (Beats, of course, may soon be acquired by Apple for $3.2 billion.) There's a handful of others out there, including Rdio, iHeartRadio and Google Play Music, but the four I mentioned are the ones I focused on for this column.
A few things to cover upfront: Most of these services are either free to start, or perpetually free with intermittent ads that play between songs. Then, they might charge $5 to $10 per month for you to upgrade to an ad-free experience. Most services are available both on the Web and through mobile apps. Some, like Beats, allow you to download songs for offline streaming, too, which means you own that song for the duration of your subscription.
There are also some differences between "on demand" streaming-music services, like Spotify, that let you search for a specific song; and Internet radio services, like Pandora and iTunes Radio, that mimic the terrestrial radio experience of curated song selections. Increasingly, though, these services are starting to match each other in terms of features.
Yes, full albums still exist
When I was a teenager, nothing made cleaning my room or doing homework for hours more bearable than listening to CDs — entire CDs. But the ability to download single digital music files has changed this. In fact, according to a 2013 report from the NPD Group, just 30 percent of U.S. consumers believe that listening to albums is still important.
Fortunately, streaming music services don't totally neglect album-length works. Beats Music, which Re/code co-editor Walt Mossberg reviewed earlier this year, lets you stream full albums and add them to your library. ITunes Radio (here's another review of that) has something called First Play, which is a prerelease of an upcoming album. Two weeks ago, I streamed Lily Allen's "Sheezus" album, which was mostly uninterrupted except for an American Express ad. Last week, it was the Black Keys' new album, "Turn Blue."
And Pandora offers something called Pandora Premieres, also available about a week before an album hits retail (usually on Tuesdays). Pandora says it previews around three albums per week, and in the past they've ranged from cello-rock bands to Iron and Wine's newest album. To access these, search for Pandora Premieres, and add it to your station list, just as you would an artist station.
There are, of course, some limitations with these full album prereleases. For example, you might be able to skip tracks but not fast-forward through songs.
Minimize data damage
Most of the streaming music companies I've talked to say it would take many, many hours of streaming over cellular before a consumer would hit her monthly data limit. And a lot of smartphone users are moving in and out of Wi-Fi zones throughout the day, minimizing their cellular data usage.
But what happens when you're in the car, or somewhere else where Wi-Fi isn't available, and you just don't want to suck up your data? In many music apps, you can adjust the streaming quality. Pandora, Spotify and Google Play Music all have this option within their app settings. In Spotify, "Normal" streaming is equivalent to 96 kilobits per second, "High" is 160 Kbps, and "Extreme" is 320 Kbps.
In Beats Music, you can adjust not only streaming quality (I have mine set to "Only on Wi-Fi," for example) but also download quality. The Beats Music app will also show you how much space you've used when you've downloaded a song from the service.
Set the mood (or skip the music for ambient noise)
Recently, a co-worker let it slip that he has a 13-hour Spotify playlist comprised entirely of calming wind chimes that he listens to at night.
Frankly, that would make me feel like the doomed chick in a horror movie, but the point is streaming music services offer playlists and sound effects that will shake up your typical Top 40 experience. And, just like in the movie "Her" ("Play melancholy song"), these tracks can be determined by genre or mood.
In Spotify, if you go to Settings, Browse and then Mood, you can find dozens of playlists based on moods, like "Songs for Sunsets," "Young, Wild and Free," "Better Off Without You" and "Life Sucks." The Beats Music app has a module called the "Sentence," which, as Mossberg wrote, lets you combine your location, your mood and a music genre to generate a fitting playlist. And in Pandora, you can start a new station from "moods" like "Hipster BBQ," "Break Up Songs," "Road Trip," "Instrumental Hip Hop" and "Classical Music for Studying." Finally, if you search for "New Age" in Pandora, you can hear a variety of ambient sounds.
Make killer playlists
Until a few weeks ago, my experience with playlists was limited to a Hip-Hop Power Workout station and any uber-hip playlists my friends were nice enough to share with me. Turns out there are many more options out there for creating personalized playlists.
Spotify is well-known for its playlist functionality. Beats Music makes it easy to create custom playlists (and add a custom cover photo to each list, like an album cover). Pandora doesn't let you make song-by-song playlists, but it has an "Add Variety" function. You can layer in several other artists to the same station to add to the personality — and personalization — of the playlist.
But a popular choice for making music playlists, especially among teenagers, is a relatively "old" app: YouTube. Those crazy kids! To make a playlist on YouTube, first you'll want to go to your own YouTube homepage and then, from the Settings dropdown in the upper-right, go to Video Manager. On the left-hand side of the page, select Playlists, then Create New Playlists, and voila — you have the makings of a new YouTube playlist. You can share this playlist, too.
Bonus tip: Ditch the alarm clock
Did you know that Pandora can function as an alarm clock? In the Pandora mobile app, go to Settings and tap on Alarm Clock. From there you can set your wake-up time, station, snooze and volume. But before you sleep, you'll have to activate the Pandora alarm screen (which disables your ability to swipe through the rest of the app) and connect your phone to power in order for the alarm to go off.