Pandora, Napster, and My Quest for Free Music Online

Quote of the Day: "Pandora received many gifts from the gods, including the gift of music, from Apollo. She was also, as we all know, very curious...We celebrate that virtue and have made it our mission to reward the musically curious among us with a never-ending experience of music discovery." -- The Music Genome Project at

Do you like to listen to music when you write? I do. Depending on what I'm writing, background music sets the tone for me and often gets my creative juices flowing. I was disheartened when the music industry went after Napster.

Any of you younguns remember Napster? It's still around as a pay service, but I'm talking about its heyday as a free (and later deemed illegal) music download site. The whole world, it seemed, was getting its tunes quickly and easily on Napster. We called it "file sharing" and didn't think there was anything wrong with it. We excused our actions, saying that downloading music on the Internet was like borrowing a book from the library or make innocent mix tapes for our friends. What was the big deal? Of course, we were promptly educated on the plight of the poor musician who needs to earn a living from his art. The cynic in me realized that it wasn't just the poor musician who was getting pissed, but the big record labels who felt they were losing money.

I always felt the music industry shot itself in the foot over the whole Napster fiasco. Rather than go after it with legal guns blazing, they should have found a compromise. It's my firm belief that if you have a big enough audience, the benjamins will come. In other words, with Napster at its peak, over 60 million people were using the service to share music. With an audience like that, are you telling me that they couldn't figure out some sort of business model that would work and then find a way to build the audience even more?

But, Napster and other file sharing sites set the stage for pay services like iTunes and others. All this is to say that I, like many other music fans, like getting my music from the Internet. I still buy the occasional CD but overall it's more convenient to listen to songs online, on my computer, downloaded to my iPod and/or my other mobile devices. (Besides my Video iPod, I also have music on my Palm Pre cellphone, my wireless laptop, and yes, my subscription-plan Napster MP3 player.)

Napster, for good and bad, helped set the stage for the new era of music distribution. Terrestrial radio stations are now streaming audio online. Satellite radio is now hawking portable devices that fit in your pocket.

Best of all is Pandora Internet Radio. Type in a favorite song or music artist and Pandora will play for you a series of similar tunes. You can create up to 100 personal channels, and you'll hear a bunch of great songs, from the familiar to the totally new. I've discovered many performers via Pandora, some of which have fast become favorites of mine, like Paramore, Flyleaf, The Raconteurs, Peaches, Stefy, Katy Perry, and more, before they hit it big.

The best feature is the "Quick Mix" selection on my Palm Pre that does a nice shuffle of songs from all my channels.

Pandora is a great way to listen to a variety of music, discover something new, and hunt it down later if you like it (and since its based on music types that you select, you'll most likely love most of what you hear, especially after tweaking your channels a bit).
And it's all free. The folks at Pandora pay royalties for the music you hear. The downside is that the record labels, of course, want their ever bigger piece of the pie, so restrictions have not-surprisingly crept in -- the Pandora service is only available in the United States, and it's now limiting listeners to 40 free hours per month. You can extend that to unlimited hours for only 99 cents a month. Definitely worth it!

I hope Pandora continues to grow and doesn't fall victim to short-sighted thinking on the part of the business side of the recording industry. Listening to Pandora for free over the past few years has led me to discover some terrific new music and become a fan of some great musicians, whose albums and merchandise I've purchased, whose Web sites I've visited, and whose concerts I've attended.

Sometimes, free music over the Internet is not a bad thing. Like I said before, if there's a big enough audience, there will be money for musicians to make, one way or another. The studios and record labels should recognize new media as an opportunity, not an enemy, otherwise they themselves will become as obsolete as the old Napster.
UPDATE: This morning, I heard from Jaclyn Livingston who told me about Livio Radio which features Pandora with no fees, subscriptions, or caps. Here's a link if you want to learn more about it: and if you use the promo code JNL you'll get $50 off. Enjoy.


jaclyn said…
I work for a company called Livio that makes the Livio Radio featuring Pandora. It has no fees, subscriptions or caps. You should look into it! Here's a link,, if you have any questions you can email me at
Anonymous said…
If you think music should simply be free, alright, but you mention the "plight of the poor musician" and then brush it off casually by insinuating that the record executives (who, by the way, run a perfectly legitimate business involving lots of work) get most if not all of the money.

I think musicians should have an opportunity to make decent money off their work, but I'm more annoyed by your logic. Two wrongs don't make a right.
Nick said…
Anonymous, I'm not condoning bootlegging or an "everything-is-free" system that takes away the profit incentive in the music business. I just think it's pretty obvious that the major record labels that dominated the industry for so long were pretty unfair to most of the talent. Sure, the big name bands and musicians make a good living, but for the most part, the bulk of the people out there with record deals get the short end of the stick in my opinion.

Napster began to provide garage bands and nameless singers the opportunity to reach the masses without having to go through a corporate gatekeeper. Rather than find a business model that could use the New Media to make everyone happy, the record labels still wanted to control the method of distribution on their own terms and killed Napster in its original incarnation. It was in their own best self-interest, so I'm not blaming them for that, I'm just saying their decision was short-sighted and reactionary instead of thinking long term and what's good for the music industry as a whole.

As I said, sometimes SOME free music isn't necessarily a bad thing, and destroying an easy to use system that enabled millions of people to easily share music -- a built in audience yearning for more content -- may not have been the smartest move.