What are You Listening To?
Date: April 11, 2014
In the early days of listening to music on the Internet, the only available offerings were those "commercially viable" genres that could attract enough attention to warrant the high set-up and operation costs. Now that streaming music online has become standard and widespread, there are wonderful sources for choral music and other classical/art musics available online. For conductors and singers alike, this is a huge opportunity-- for us as conductors, it's an easy way for us to discover new compositions or ensembles. For singers, especially young singers who may not have exemplars of "the choral sound" in their ears, an opportunity to experience what choral music can sound like at its highest levels can be highly valuable. With that in mind, here is a quick run-down of some options which may help you and your musicians fill your ears.
Spotify is both an app and a web service which allows you to select particular albums, artists or songs to listen to (as long as they are in Spotify's licensed library). There is a free version with ads, and a paid subscription model without ads. A relatively recent development is that the mobile apps for Spotify are now free (they previously were part of the paid subscription), although you do have to be online to listen. Spotify has built up a comparatively sizeable choral library, and is continuing to add to their resources.
A benefit of Spotify for conductors and teachers is that other users can follow you, similar to Twitter or the like, and see what you're listening to. You could use this to curate a weekly listening list or just recommended examples. You can also create individual playlists and share them.
iTunes Radio has been around since early iTunes days, but it recently got a significant facelift. iTunes obviously has an enormous volume of licensed material through the iTunes store, but it is limited to curated radio stations that have failrly broad categories (e.g. "Classical," "Gospel"). Also, the selections tend to be fairly conservative-- the chances of an expert ear stumbling upon something new and interesting under the heading of "Classical" are fairly low. Regardless, it is an easy and accessible option for younger musicians looking for an entry point into art musics.
SoundCloud is becoming an interesting mix of performers recording music that is in the public domain and recordings from new composers and works seeking publication. While, like Spotify, you can search for individual tracks, you can't easily connect one to another (i.g. "If you like this, then..."). SoundCloud has no major licensing agreements, although curiously some recordings from Sony Classical appear in their library. All in all, this is not likely to be useful for passive exploration, although a browse for new works and compositions from time to time yields some interesting fruit.
Perhaps the first major player in the current audio streaming landscape, Pandora has always seemed to be less interested in licensing choral and classical works than expanding the commercial genres. Offering no individual song choice selection, Pandora asks you for a place to start and then selects songs that it thinks you will like (according to Pandora's own "Music Genome Project"). The thumbs-up/thumbs-down device helps prune the radio selection. Unfortunately, once you get specific in a genre of limited selection through Pandora's library, that means you're likely to get a lot of your original track repeated as it tries to figure out what else to offer you. It is, however, a great way to easily fill entrance music before a concert.
Finally, we get to Grooveshark. This is a bit of an oddity in that, like the early days of YouTube, it offers forward whatever content users upload regardless of ownership. This means that there can be much more varied selections available contributed by aficionados of particular artists, genres or eras. It also means that, in the most part, those recordings are in flagrant copyright violation. The RIAA is obviously pretty vocal in opposition to Grooveshark's existence, but Grooveshark has been able to so far fend off legal shutdown based on its compliance with specific takedown requests. The controversy around it causes other third-parties to keep their distance, so it's a website only (no apps available).
If that all sounds a bit contrived for you, here are the basics: Grooveshark advertises themselves as the largest library of streaming audio on the Internet. That may be true, but it's mostly illegal (certainly in the spirit of the law if not the letter). Be warned when a singer comes to you wanting to share a Grooveshark playlist with the class that the product itself is most likely not legal--- but that can be a great entry point into a conversation about copyright and digital citizenship as artists with your ensemble!
I'm a big fan of what Spotify offers as an educator and listener. Pandora and iTunes Radio have advantages if you're looking to create background music for something, but aren't great tools for targeted research or sharing specific examples with your group. Grooveshark is very popular, but should come with a large red flag for you if it comes up in your ensemble.