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If you’re a music lover with boxes and shelves of music CDs, or if you have managed to burn or download digital music to your Mac or PC, this beginner’s guide to digital music setup and playing is written specifically for you. As a jazz enthusiast, I copied my entire CD collection to iTunes when it was released in 2001, and I haven’t looked back since. Digital music rekindled my interests in jazz and rap, and it has made it possible for me to get more out of the music experience.
While this guide is in no way comprehensive, it should be useful to music lovers who haven’t had the time to learn about the different music related websites, software and other resources that can be used without spending too much money. In fact, if you have a good computer, Internet connection, and a nice size CD or MP3 download collection, you’re ready to get started.
Going digital depends largely on three things: (1) how much time you listen to music, (2) where you mostly listen to music, and (3) what types of music you listen to.
Building a Library
The first step to going digital is to get albums and tracks into your computer. If you’re running a Mac, you will probably want to use iTunes (here’s how to get set up), and if on a PC, you would probably want to use Windows Media Player. I’m an iTunes user, but much of my suggestions can be used on Windows Media Player as well.
To build your digital music library, import your CDs into your music player. If you have a large collection (say 1,000 or more CDs), you probably should house your library on an external drive, because you will need space to grow the collection.
I’ve never bothered with searching for “illegal” downloads of music, but this article presents several sites for free legal downloads. You might also try hitting up your local libraries to help build your collection, where you can borrow and import CDs to your digital library.
Access Streaming Music
Before you go and start buying digital songs and albums, I suggest you join a music streaming site, especially if you have good Internet access. Subscribing to a site like Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, or MOG, enables you to listen to entire albums of songs for free (with commercial ads) for as little as $5 a month.
You can never own songs streamed from these sites, but you get access to a huge music catalog with no limits to how many times you play the songs and albums. This means you ultimately only purchase songs you want to keep on your computer or mobile device. These sites are also social networks, where you can follow other music listeners, who essentially become your personal DJs for new and heavy rotation music. Actually, if you’d rather not bother with buying, downloading, managing, and backing up music files, streaming music sites are your best bet. Read here for the pros and cons of streaming vs downloading MP3s.
If you want to have access to your music library from any Internet source, Google Play allows you to copy up 20,000 songs from your existing music library to your Google account, and then stream your music via Wi-Fi, or from a mobile app for Google Play.
Where to Purchase Music
There are many sites to purchase and download music. The two biggest are the iTunes Music Store and Amazon MP3. What makes these two stores practical is that digital music content can be downloaded directly into your respective music players, including mobile players (iPhone, iPad, Android.) But both of these sites have account restrictions that I discuss below.
iTunes Music Store
In the iTunes player, you simply click on iTunes Store to access its vast library. You can browse the top songs, or click on All Categories and select a genre you prefer. Each category of music in the iTunes Store provides you a wealth of recommendations, from new releases to “best of” tracks and albums. Categories are also broken down into musical periods, styles, and top downloads.
Note also that you can save selected songs and albums to your Wish List (in both the iTunes Store and Amazon MP3) and thus budget your money for musical downloads.
With iTunes, all your musical purchases are instantly backed up to your account, and thus can be re-downloaded if need be. Downloads are DRM-free, meaning you own the songs you purchase. But with iTunes there’s a caveat: your purchased songs can only be played on up to 5 authorized computers. Those authorizations must be based on your iTunes account. This is one reservation that keeps me from shopping at iTunes (note – be sure to purchase all your songs under one Apple/iTunes account address. If you purchase under different accounts, you may run into problems playing purchased songs later when you switch to a new computer.)
The browsing features for music in the Amazon Store are a little more time consuming to navigate than in the iTunes Store, but Amazon’s MP3 and CD stores do break down selections into a wide range of musical genres and sub-categories.
Categories also exist for new releases, best sellers, and bargains–the latter of which you find a lot less in the iTunes Store. All Amazon MP3 purchases can be downloaded through Amazon’s Downloader which imports music content into your iTunes or Windows Media Player. Your purchase content can also be played in the Amazon Cloud Player, which is optimized for the iPhone, Android, and Kindle Fire. You can also play songs via a web browser.
Like iTunes, MP3s are also DRM-free, but you can only play purchased songs on up to 10 authorized computers. So if you plan on burning songs on CDs as gifts, this can be a drawback for Amazon as well.
I prefer purchasing songs on Emusic.com and Rdio.com because there are no computer authorization limitations. The songs you buy, you own them completely. With Emusic.com you pay a monthly subscription, ranging from $6.49 to $79.99 per month. There are also quarterly and yearly options.
Emusic songs and albums are on average cheaper (especially for older tracks) than iTunes and Amazon, and the monthly subscription can help you keep within a spending budget. I keep my eMusic “Saved for Later” collection updated so that each month I review the list for possible subscription downloads.
As you will readily see, digital songs are much cheaper than CDs and you can purchase individual songs instead of entire albums, though some songs are only sold as part of an entire album purchase.
Manage Your Library Collection
To get the most our of your digital music experience, keep your music library organized within music genres, and categories, timelines, and playlists. Smart playlists in iTunes and Auto Playlists in Windows Player are the best and most efficient ways to organize and get the most our of your music collection. Windows Player will automatically create playlists when you import an album. Also, typically, iTunes and Windows Player will add all the metadata (song titles, artists, dates, and release dates) automatically to your imported CDs and downloads.
These type of playlists are based on the rules you set for them. For example, you will want to set up a smart playlist to display all your recently imported songs. Another list can update all your five star favorites; and a similar list can update the songs you listen to most or least. The more you listen to and rate songs in your library, the more fun you can have with creating smart collections.
Personally, I like to keep my iTunes library open on a second monitor with content displayed in album, grid view, and then make selections from there. Other times, I allow iTunes DJ and iTunes Genius to select songs for me. Invariably, iTunes DJ will deliver songs I hadn’t played in a while and really like.
Create another smart playlist of songs you have yet to play more than once. This is a good way to make sure you’re not buying more music than you’re actually listing to.
Finally, I think it’s wise to copy as much of your favorite music to a portable MP3 player. I still keep and maintain my entire library on a 5th Generation iPod Classic (I explain why here), which I use in my car. It’s also extremely important to have a backup system, (such as Time Machine for Mac) for your music library–preferably one that automatically performs the task for you.
There are many mobile music apps for iOS and Android devices–too many to list here. But a few good ones include Shazam or SoundHound–both useful for identifying music you hear on the radio and for keeping up with your favorite artists.
Look for apps that are specific to the music genres you like. For example I keep Jazz Radio and Jazz.FM91 on my iPhone for when I want to hear cuts not in my music library. Rdio, Spotify, and MOG also have mobile apps, but it will cost you extra to listen to entire songs and albums on them. If you’re an iPhone user, here are four other music apps you might consider.
I hope this basic guide is useful, but let me know what questions you have about getting started. If you’re an experienced digital music listener, please share you own ideas and resources.