You’re paying too much for music on your phone


Google’s Play Music All Access is the latest offering to hit the smartphone music scene. It gives users direct access to songs, lets them create custom radio stations, and helps them discover new artists. While it sounds like another great addition to the landscape of options available, it’s really not doing anything new. That applies to both the features it offers, as well as what Google wants you to pay; once the initial promo expires in a month, new users will be paying nearly $10 a month for the service.

Granted, that’s only pennies a day, but if you’re anything like me, you’re already dealing with about as many recurring monthly bills as you can stand. I’ve got ISP, phone, and server bills in addition to all the basic utilities people require; if you’ve got kids, I’m sure there are another half a dozen additional things you’re paying for every month. My point is, $10 may not be much, but before I add that onto my current monthly expenses, I’m going to want to make sure I’m getting my money’s worth.

That’s the problem: services like All Access or Spotify may be feature-rich and (relatively) affordable, but they’re less of a good value if you can get what you need from them elsewhere, and for a lot cheaper. That’s what I’d like to talk about today: getting the music you want on your phone while minimizing the expense.

How Do You Listen to Music?

Services like All Access sure get one thing right: many of us listen to music in different ways at different times. Sometimes we’ve got one track in our head we’d love to hear, or just want to revisit an old album, all the way through. Sometimes we just want some background noise, and aren’t too picky about precisely which songs we here. Sometimes we don’t know what we want at all.

While all-in-one services that can help you out with each of those can be convenient, there are other, cheaper ways you can scratch each of those itches.

Specific Songs

If I want to pull up a certain song, my first stop is YouTube. Sadly, mobile connections don’t offer quite the same selection of clips you have access to when going online from a desktop, but the selection is still pretty stellar. Sure, there’s a mix of official uploads, tolerated unofficial uploads from fans, and those that are actively being targeted for removal, so there will be gaps in what’s available.

Largely, however, the selection and quality are good enough to scratch that itch. Just now I tried a little informal test, and was able to pull out my phone, wake it up, search YouTube, and start listening to They Might Be Giants’s “Birdhouse in Your Soul” in eighteen seconds. That’s not too shabby.

For artists or songs you really like, it might make sense to just buy the music. There are any number of online stores you can visit where you can grab an individual track or a whole album just as easily as doing that YouTube search, and have the music ready to in the future whenever the mood strikes you.

But wait, isn’t that quickly going to get more expensive than any streaming service? Yes and no. You can easily overdo it, sure, but buying music doesn’t have to be so costly. Shopping around can nab you some sweet deals – full, popular albums for just $4 a download aren’t unheard of.

If you’ve got the patience, arguably the best way to build up a library of music is buying used physical CDs. Once ripped to your computer and scanned by Apple or Google’s cloud storage servers, it’s good to go on your phone, just like you bought the album digitally. While you might think that you can save the most by saving on shipping and visiting local record stores, online shopping can be an even better deal; even with shipping factored-in, you can find a huge number of albums selling used on CD in the $4 to $5 range on Amazon.

And don’t forget: when you buy a CD instead of a digital download you’re getting more for your money. While I’ve got no illusions that many people would simply rather pay for the convenience of not having to get a CD in the mail and go through the trouble of ripping it, I see it another way: I’m getting a hard copy, a backup, and my digital copy, all for just a few minutes of work.

Streaming Radio

For me, here’s where the bulk of my interest lies. I want something to listen to while writing, or cleaning the kitchen. It doesn’t have to be particularly engaging; just the right genre to keep me mildly interested.

The good news is that there are already good, free options. Pandora is great, and ad-supported, but still has its limitations, like that 40-hour-per-month cut-off.

Once again, I’ve got to go old-school. I’ve talked before about how great FM radio is as a smartphone feature, and that’s still the case. Just how useful such a tuner is will vary based on your location – if all the local stations are rubbish, there’s not much to be done – but it certainly gives you new options, and the price is right. The big problem is really just how rare a feature it is in the first place.

Far and away, the source I turn to most often for music on my smartphone is… Shoutcast. Yes, it still exists. Or, if not Shoutcast in specific, any streaming MP3-based radio station. My list of favorite stations includes a number of finely-tuned genre-specific channels, as well as legitimate FM radio stations broadcasting online. I might never actually buy a dubstep album, but dammit if I don’t listen to for hours on end. There’s plenty available out there, and as I’m not incredibly picky over just which songs I get to hear, this all suits me plenty well.

What It’s Worth To You

Please don’t take this as an attack on the Spotifys of the world. They’re great for what they do, and can give users much more control over what they hear.

They’re cheap enough to seem like impulse buys to many of us, but those access fees add up. $10 is nothing, but $120 a year is worth thinking about. One year from now, am I going to wish that I had more control over the music I listened to on my phone in the previous twelve months, or am I going to wish I still had $120? By sacrificing a little choice and a little convenience, I can have all the music I want, and maybe I’ll even add to my CD library in the process.

A word of advice in general when dealing with smartphone services: ask yourself if you really need everything that’s offered, or are you just a bit in awe at the selection. Ask yourself what you’ll have to show for it after you eventually stop using the service one day. There’s often more than one way to do something, and the easiest way, best way, and the way that gives you the most for your money don’t always overlap.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bits Read more about Stephen Schenck!