If you're looking for good music on the Internet, you don't have to look far. And you don't have to break any copyright laws.
While the recording industry has been engaged in a noisy battle with pirates who use a technology called MP3 to compress popular album tracks and post them online, the World Wide Web is host to two additional sources of music that are perfectly legal and easy to find.
The first is Internet radio, which allows traditional broadcasters and Web-only stations to transmit directly to your computer - regardless of your location and theirs. The other is the Web's vast collection of MIDI files - instrumental music that plays through the synthesizer on your sound card. We'll deal with radio today.
What makes Internet radio such a big deal? Let's say you like to listen to Eastern Caribbean country hip-hop, but there's no radio station in town that plays it. In fact, there's only one station in the world that does specialize in Eastern Caribbean country hip-hop, and that's in Dubuque - way out of range of your radio. But if that station broadcasts on the Web, you can listen to it 24 hours a day, no matter where you are. Likewise, if you're an Orioles fan living in San Antonio, you can tune in WBAL's broadcasts on the Web.
Internet radio uses "streaming" technology to send music, voice, and video transmissions over the Web. This is not an easy trick, because the Internet wasn't designed for continuous broadcasts - it chops data (in this case, digitized music) into tiny "packets" and sends them on their way to you, often by different routes. When they reach their destination, the packets are reassembled in the right order, but even a few dropped or missing packets can cause delays or garble a broadcast.
To listen to Internet radio, you'll need a "plug-in" program for your Web browser that can contact a broadcaster's server, receive the transmission and play it through your speakers. If you have a a relatively new PC, the media player built into Windows 95/98 will handle most transmissions.
But if you want the best quality, or you run into broadcasts that require a newer plug-in, surf over to www.realaudio.com and download a free copy of RealPlayer G2. Ignore the sales pitch for the $29.95 RealPlayer Plus for now - if you want more bells and whistles, you can buy the advanced version later. The freebie will get you started just fine.
RealPlayer is designed to receive sound and video broadcasts in RealAudio format, the technology that most Internet radio stations use. RealAudio servers compresse the data stream enough to make the system workable for dialup Internet users, but don't expect miracles. At its best, you'll get the quality of a good AM radio. Depending on the station and the volume of Internet traffic, you may get a signal that breaks up from time to time. But when it works, RealAudio can deliver a pleasant listening experience, particularly if you have a decent sound card and speakers.
Your first stop should be broadcast.com's Web site, where you'll find links to hundreds of radio stations broadcasting in RealAudio. They're indexed by location, call letter and format (adult contemporary, urban, Christian rock, all-Rush Limbaugh, etc.). Just click on a station's call letters and few seconds later, you'll hear it.
Far more interesting are the new, Internet-only radio stations. These broadcasters aren't limited to a single frequency by FCC regulations, and the best offer dozens of channels featuring different types of music, usually commercial free (or sort of - the ads that pay the bills show up on your screen).
The newest and one of the slickest Internet-only stations is Rolling Stone Radio (www.rsradio.com), sponsored by the magazine that defines rock culture. To listen in, you'll have to download both RealAudio G2 and Rolling Stone's proprietary tuner program, which operates independently of your Web browser. The station offers 11 music formats - all contemporary - so if you want blues, disco or classical, you'll have to look elsewhere. There's also a bug in the tuner - it displays the name of the song but not the artist. But the audio quality is good and you can't get much hipper than Rolling Stone.
My favorite of this bunch is Spinner (www.spinner.com), which offers a database of 130,000 songs spread among more than 100 channels, ranging from Baroque to big band to something called Barenaked Ladies. If you you just broke up with your boyfriend, you can drown your sorrows in the Love Gone Bad channel, or hop over to Melancholia for Gothic woe. Spinner will play through your Web browser, or you can download RealAudio G2 and use Spinner's colorful standalone tuner, which features seven pre-set channel buttons so you can hop from one format to the next.
If you want more control over what you hear, Imagine Radio (www.imagineradio.com) comes as close as you can get to custom programming without offending the record industry, which is touchy about what broadcasters can and can't do. In any case, Imagine lets you choose from 20 standard formats or develop your own station by choosing a list of artists and rating them on a scale of zero to 5. You can't determine exactly what songs you'll hear, but your favorite artists will show up frequently.
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