When the Supreme Court smacked down Grokster last month for enabling copyright infringement, downloaders everywhere winced. But there's still hope for those of us who love to check out music for free but don't want to risk prosecution. Around the time of the Grokster decision, I discovered a free, streaming version of the new Spoon album on the Merge Records Web site. Not satisfied with my haul, I kept on hunting and eventually amassed a playlist of more than 50 full-length, streaming albums. They're all free and they're all provided with the blessing of the band and the label—and they sound just as good as most MP3s.
If you want to start dabbling with streams, make sure you have a high-speed connection. You should also download Windows Media Player, QuickTime, and Real Audio. On most sites, all you have to do is click on a link—presto, your music player will launch, and the album will start playing. Most interfaces allow you to fast-forward and rewind at your discretion, but not all of them. One universal requirement is that you have to be online to listen. There's no way to download a stream to your hard drive or MP3 player. Since you pretty much have to be sitting in front of your computer, most people use streams to try before they buy. But I've grown to appreciate how they force you to be an attentive listener. For undisciplined collectors like me, it's a better system than downloading a bunch of MP3s that I'll never spend quality time with.
Internet radio has been hyped for years, but few anticipated that full-length streaming albums would become a craze. The phenomenon started as a way for bands to get their music heard when the industry let them down. In 2001, Wilco streamed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after parting ways with their label; in the first month after posting the tracks online, around 250,000 people tuned in. The music biz soon caught on. In 2002, Vice Records (home of Brit rockers Bloc Party) made almost their entire catalog available as free streams. And in recent months, major label heavyweights like Weezer, Nine Inch Nails, and REM have streamed their albums for free on MySpace.com before releasing them in record stores.
Why the recent boom? For a small label like Vice, it's a cheap way to get people to hear a band that doesn't get much radio play (like, say, Death from Above 1979) and, hopefully, to find fans who'll patronize the group by coming to shows and buying merchandise. The major labels have figured out that streams are a good way to put products online without risking piracy. While it's not hard for a tech-savvy person to record a streaming album, it's not really worth the bother: The sound quality would be poor—something like taping a song off the radio—and it's a lot easier to just download the MP3s. Perhaps most important, since few people want to be chained to a computer to listen to an album, the early adopters who listen to an online stream will pass it along to their friends—and still go out and buy the album.
Some tips for beginners: First of all, don't pony up for a subscription site like Rhapsody or Napster—paying for streams is for suckers. Google is a good first stop. Try typing in "full album streaming"—that's how I found Chicago's eerily beautiful Pelican. MP3 blogs like Fluxblog and Stereogum can help suss out obscure tunes, too. If you're looking for a particular band, try your favorite label's Web site. (If you love Rhino or V2, you're in luck). AOL's Full CD Listening Party may make you install a pesky plug-in, but it does a good job aggregating new streams—there's everything from the latest Carly Simon to the Dukes of Hazzard soundtrack to the Decemberists' Picaresque. (And, remarkably, The Essential Iron Maiden!) Musicbox is less spiffy and offers fewer full CDs but does cater to the Robert Plant, Van Morrison, and Carole King set.
MySpace's the Booth is another good place to go fishing. One potential bonus: You might be able to chat with your favorite musician on their MySpace blog. The downside: Sometimes only a few tracks off the album are available for streaming, and you can't always skip ahead to the next song. If you're into live shows and rarities, Just Concerts, a site sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, has performances from the likes of Sleater-Kinney, M.I.A., and Interpol. AOL's Music Channel has video of all the Live 8 concerts, including performances by Coldplay and U2.
My personal favorite, though, is Epitonic, a site founded by musicians that focuses on indie and experimental bands. While it doesn't always have entire albums, there are "radio streams" that feature bands that have something in common with your favorites. The best feature is the "inbox" that lets you save songs you like and return to them later and share them with your friends. It was here that I discovered an old John Vanderslice record that I'd never heard: Mass Suicide Occult Figurines. I soon became deeply invested in Vanderslice's driftless world of speed labs, defeated ambitions, and ochre caterpillars. Harnessed to my computer, I found myself nostalgic for a landscape that I didn't own.