The first free online music resource was the Internet Underground Music Archive, set up in 1993. This, and other online sources, reached a subset of internet users, until Napster made a major impact with their file-sharing service in the late 1990s. Major record labels launched their own paid-for sharing services on the back of Napster’s success, but in many cases, high prices and time-limited files led to customer backlash and little success.
Broadly speaking, the availability of online music falls into two category types – live streaming (incorporating internet radio), and music file downloads
Live streaming and internet radio are both appropriate for instances where you want to listen to the available music without saving it to your computer or listening device for repeat listening later. The music is ‘streamed’ and listened to as it is delivered, with no permanent copy being retained on the device.
Alternatively, music can be downloaded in file format, stored on a computer or other device, and played back at a later time or date. However, operating in this way raises questions of legality. Commercial material is covered by copyright legislation, and distribution of such material without the consent of, and payment to the copyright holder via the online supplier, is an illegal activity.
The increased democratisation of the music business due to the influence of the internet has led to a number of bands and musicians to offer their recorded music for free over the internet, and to derive their income from other sources. A number of musicians have also taken a ‘halfway house’ approach, and offer a limited selection of free tracks via online services as ‘tasters’, in the hope that this will prompt the listeners to buy their chargeable product.
Live streaming services have been growing significantly in number over the last five years or so. They are typified by the likes of Spotify, although it should be noted that Spotify offers a number of paid-for options as well as its basic, free service.
When does a streaming service become an internet radio service? Essentially, when the service provider chooses a playlist, genre of music, or other subcategory to ‘broadcast’ in the same way that a regular radio station would, and when the listener plays no part in this choice. Often, internet radio streams are punctuated with announcements and links from ‘disc jockeys’, and in some cases, carry local advertising. Many traditional radio stations now mirror their regular broadcast output with a side-by-side internet stream, offering those in poor radio reception areas the ability to listen without interference and other reception problems.
In terms of the hardware required, many listeners would reach for a PC, laptop or netbook, but many audio manufacturers are progressing the development of standalone streaming devices, which can access the internet through a home network and router, whether through an Ethernet connection, or by wireless means. This can allow a streaming device to be used in a dedicated music room or living area, free from the fan noise that would be present if a PC or laptop were used for the same purpose.