Money Classic: The High Price of Being a Portable Music Pioneer (1999)
Money is turning 50! To celebrate, we’ve combed through decades of our print magazines to uncover hidden gems, fascinating stories and vintage personal finance tips that have (surprisingly) withstood the test of time. Throughout 2022, we’ll be sharing our favorite finds in Money Classic, a special limited-edition newsletter that goes out twice a month.
This excerpt, featured in the fourth issue of Money Classic, comes from a story in our July 1999 edition.
Years ago I owned an album by a short-lived '60s pop band called The Left Banke that featured the gorgeous song "Walk Away Renee." Sometime during the Reagan or Bush Administrations, the record disappeared. But while browsing the Internet recently, I was thrilled to find a Left Banke greatest-hits album at an online music store, complete with a song sample of "Walk Away Renee." After listening to a few bars, I fell in love with the tune again.
Welcome to the Internet music revolution, part two. For the past couple of years, online music shopping has been about bargain prices and vast catalogues. Now the best sites have evolved into the digital equivalents of knowledgeable record store clerks, with helpful reviews, discographies and other resources that let you trace an artist's career or explore an entire musical genre, from bebop to baroque. Better yet, thanks to free downloadable software, you can listen to any one of thousands of music samples right at your computer, making it easy to catch up with new releases, find old favorites and discover little-known gems.
This revolution is a work in progress, however. Most music sites offer only a handful of samples per album, usually muffled, 30-second mono clips. Yet the sound quality is improving quickly, and downloading the free audio software right from the sites is relatively easy to do. RealPlayer is the most common, but higher-quality formats, such as Liquid Audio, are also available. The controversial MP3 music downloading system is just beginning to make its way into Web CD stores (see below). Whatever the system, stereo speakers and a fast Internet connection will help you take full advantage of the sound and avoid lengthy waits.
After listening in at more than a dozen CD sites, I found myself returning most often to the three standouts described below. Bear in mind, these online outlets are great for browsing but don't necessarily offer the best prices. Bargain hunters may want to start their search at a price-comparison site such as mysimon.com. Or go right to the online retailers cduniverse.com and cdconnection.com, where I often found the lowest prices — which are usually just $1 below the highest. Now for the sites:
Backed by music magazines Rolling Stone, Down Beat and The Source, Tunes.com is a dilettante's paradise. Boasting more than one million music samples (via RealPlayer), the site lets you explore nearly 200 different musical genres, from '80s postpunk to New Orleans jazz. You'll also find detailed reviews and discographies provided by the database website allmusic.com. Additional info is a click away on the magazine sites — Rolling Stone, for example, offers more than a thousand (kind of grainy) music videos, which can be viewed via RealPlayer.
Despite its high-powered connections, Tunes.com retains a home-grown feel. Music fans can write their own reviews and post to message boards. I especially liked the on-target recommendations — from both the site and fans — that pop up on each page. Browsing in the South African music department, for example, I was steered toward a little-known reggae singer named Lucky Dube. After listening to Dube's soulful, impassioned voice, I added his album Taxman to my wish list.
The site has some weaknesses. You won't find the newest releases, and the classical section is a bit skimpy. But whether you want to sample Radiohead's oeuvre or explore swing music's progenitors, this is a great place to start.
The recent merger of rivals CDnow and Music Boulevard looks like a plus for consumers. The newly combined site builds on CDnow's vast rock, jazz and classical lineup. But the choices, which were grouped into seven broad headings at the old CDnow, are now organized into Music Boulevard's more browse-able 16 categories.
Wisely, CDnow has also hung onto Music Boulevard's higher-quality sound samples in MPEG format, though RealPlayer samples still predominated when I visited the site in May. Much of Music Boulvard's superior editorial content is still here as well, including reviews and album information drawn from sources such as muze.com and the news service Allstar. You'll also find Music Boulevard's superb classical music search engine, which enables you to hunt by instrument, ensemble and even catalogue number.
As you would expect, Amazon's music department gives you a clean layout, easy navigation and helpful, if usually upbeat, reviews. This site has been quick to offer free exclusive singles downloads from upcoming albums in MP3 and Liquid Audio format, which allow you to save the entire song on a CD or your hard drive. Recently, for example, you could grab the Sarah McLachlan singles "I Will Remember You" and "Building a Mystery." As on the other music sites, you can listen to intriguing recommenations. I sampled the cult classic "Oar" by Skip Spence, the former Moby Grape guitarist, and was transported by Mahler's Symphony No. 1 as performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony — for 30 seconds, anyway. Now where did I put my credit card?
Will CDs go the way of vinyl? An MP3 primer
The Web isn't just changing the way you buy CDs. Thanks to a new music technology called MP3 — and the Walkman-like devices that play it — the Web is threatening to make CDs obsolete.
What is MP3? Technically, it's a format used for turning recorded music into digital computer files. In practical terms, MP3 boils down to an easy and free way for music fans to copy and exchange near-CD-quality recordings via the Web.
How MP3 works. First you'll need the free software that allows you to download and play MP3 files. You can get a copy from, among other sites, mp3.lycos.com. That site also rates sites with MP3 music and links you to them. Or you can plug the name of a particular artist and "MP3" into a Net search engine like yahoo.com.
Once you download the music files, you play them right from your computer — through either your computer speakers or a stereo system — or transfer them to a portable player, the most popular version of which is Diamond Multimedia's Rio. We found the Rio, which holds up to an hour of music, selling for $137.95 at shopping.com.
A warning. Many MP3 files circulate illegally, without the approval of (or financial renumeration to) recording companies or artists, so the industry is developing an alternative, sanctioned format. Before you decide to invest your time and money, keep in mind that MP3 could go the way of Betamax.
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