About a decade ago, music was revolutionized by the rise of digital. The conversion is not as far complete as geeks often believe (digital album sales accounted for just 26.5% of all album sales in the United States as of the end of 2010), but the door has been opened, and it will not be closed.
Now, online music services are opening another door. They abandon digital files entirely, leaving some with the urge to uninstall standalone software and play music online via their browsers.
Picking A Service
To play music online with your browser, you usually need to pick a service that allows it.
There are a few types of services available at the moment. If you don’t want to pay, then you’ll still be looking at options like Pandora (currently restricted to just the United States), Rdio (to a limited extent), and the thousands of online radio stations currently operating. Free usage is the advantage of these options, but the downside is that you’ll usually have to deal with some form of commercial interruption or usage restriction, and you rarely have the option to pick the specific track that you want to listen to.
Paid options, like Zune, Rhapsody and Rdio, allow you to ditch the commercial interruptions and pick your own music in exchange for a monthly subscription fee. Often, you’re allowed to keep one or two albums per month as well. It’s a great deal for people who listen to lots of music, but paying a monthly fee forever isn’t everyone’s idea of a good value. The inevitable library restrictions (no one has a deal with every artist, ever) can be frustrating, as well.
Finally, we have the cloud services, which usually offer free use with paid premium options. Amazon’s Cloud Player, which lets you upload your music and then play it anywhere on any device with a browser (or an app) is a good example, as is Apple’s iCloud. Spotify is a hybrid between the subscription and cloud options.
What Should You Choose?
Well, the free options have no advantages besides the fact that they’re free, but for many people that’s enough. With certain extensions (which we’ll examine in a moment) you can obtain a lot of value without paying a dime.
The paid subscription services offer huge libraries, user choice, unlimited listening, and most let you keep some music every month. The cloud services offer less variety or restrict you to music you have already purchased, but there’s no monthly fee, so they’re good for occasional listeners as well as people who already have large libraries.
Listening In A Browser
So, now you’ve picked a service, and you want to listen in a browser. Easy! Go to the service’s website and use their built-in browser. Job done.
Okay, you probably already knew that.
Listening straight from a service’s site is easy, but it also has the disadvantage of requiring an open tab in your browser. That can be a bit annoying if you have a lot of tabs open at once. I know I’ve more than once cut a favorite track off because I closed the wrong tab.
That’s where browser extensions come in, but unfortunately, they can be a bit difficult to find. Official support is not as widespread as most users would like. In some cases, such as Zune and Spotify, this is because the online service has its own software that it expects users to download.
As an alternative, you can use extensions that are not associated with any specific service. Some examples for Chrome are Radio Player Live [No Longer Available], which offers free access to hundreds of online radio channels, and, which makes it possible to listen to music files that are stored in your DropBox account using simple media player controls.
The best player from Chrome is probably the Last.fm player (you don’t even have to sign up for Last.fm to use it, though you should to make finding tracks easier). Firefox users have a similar option in the form of Fire.fm [No Longer Available]. If you don’t want to put much effort into finding an extension, I recommend just using Last.fm for starters.
The state of music players for browsers isn’t where I suspect many users would like it to be. This is most evident when you look for players in the Chrome web store and find a number of options, only to realize that they’re listed as “web apps” rather than extensions, which means they open in their own tab (and in fact sometimes just re-direct to a service’s website) and doesn’t help with tab management. Firefox’s selection of music players is even smaller.
Still, there are some options available, as I listed above. If you don’t want to use those, you’ll have to rely on the website of whatever service you prefer. That’s still not a bad option, and it does effectively turn your browser into a music player.
Let us know what music service you prefer and how you’ve managed to turn your browser into a music player.