How to pay less for the tunes you love

Free Your Music

by Jennifer Tuohy

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As a child of the 90s (OK, late 80s), I remember saving up my pennies, going up town to HMV on Oxford Street, and sitting cross-legged in front of a giant rack of vinyl. I would be there for hours, pawing through the denim and rhinestone clad artists, trying to decide which were worthy of a place in my permanent collection.

Today, the concept of buying music in its physical form is quickly dying. Apart from a brief hipster trend for vinyl, everyone now listens to music digitally. Figuring out the most cost-effective way to do that has become something of an obsession of mine. The digital revolution has left us with two options: streaming or owning. Which is better for you depends, as all things in music do, on your personal taste.

Streaming, where music plays instantly over a device such as a smartphone or a home computer, offers a flexible, cost-effective way to listen to music whenever and wherever you want (as long as you're online). But it is difficult to dispense with the concept of actually owning the music, which you definitely don't with streaming.

Owning involves buying digital copies of songs through services such as Amazon, Google Play and iTunes and storing it on your computer or mobile device. You can also sync it to the cloud with services like iTunes Match and Google Music All Access, so you can listen on multiple devices and on the go.

Here's a rundown of the most cost-effective streaming and owning options for listening to your tunes in the digital age:


Essentially a collection of your favorite radio stations without a chatty DJ, Pandora takes your favorite artists and creates stations for you based on them. You can listen anywhere you have an internet connection and it's completely free, as long as you don't mind listening to ads about every three or four songs. You can also skip a certain number of songs per hour. Or, if you pay $4.99 a month you can ditch the ads and skip more songs.

Annual cost: Free with ads / $60 without


While Pandora is like radio, Spotify is like having someone else's music collection at your fingertips. You can access it anytime you like, but you don't own it. It's an on-demand service, so if you want to listen to Adele you can listen to only Adele (not a little bit of Adele and a lot of others who sound like her, as with Pandora). You can also download tracks to listen offline, but you pay $10 a month for that, which includes no ads. Otherwise, it's free on mobile and desktop.

Annual Cost: Free with ads / $120 without

iTunes Radio & iTunes Match

The daddy of digital music, iTunes got into the free streaming game late last year with the release of iTunes Radio. A free internet radio streaming service, with ads and genre/artist-based playlists, iTunes Radio's biggest selling point is its access to the largest music database in the world. If you don't like ads, you can pay $25 annually for iTunes Match. This gets rid of ads and gives you space for up to 25,000 songs on iCloud, so you can put your entire music collection (ripped CDs and all) in the cloud. This is a great tool if you find your music library is filling up your hard drive. However, you can only listen to the music when you're online.

Annual Cost: Free for radio with ads / $25 to have all your music in the cloud and ad-free radio

Google Music All Access

Google's music service is pay-only at $10 a month. As with iTunes Radio, it combines the streaming radio concept with your own music, which you can upload to the cloud to play anytime and anywhere, up to 20,000 songs. For that $10, however, you also get to download songs for offline listening and no ads. The best feature of Google Music All Access is that you can see all the songs coming up in the playlist, swipe away any that you don't want, and drag and drop to reorder them. Plus, you can create playlists that intermingle your tracks with on-demand songs. If you're going to be offline, you can pin music on your device so that you can keep listening.

Annual Cost: $120

If you hate ads almost as much as you hate spending money and you're already in the Apple ecosystem, iTunes Radio / Match is a great choice. If you like a lot of control over your streaming service Google Music All Access is a really good value. For the millennials among us who will never own a single piece of music and who refuse to spend money on anything, it's hard to beat the free version of Spotify.

Jennifer Tuohy is a tech geekess and thrifty mother of two that writes for about ways to enhance your life without paying for it. Follow Jennifer on Google+ and on eBay.

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