Grooveshark and virtual music collections
That's one of the intriguing questions raised by Grooveshark, a streaming music service that offers advertiser-supported music on demand (the ad-free version costs $3 a month). Fresh from its settlement with EMI, the company rolled out a slick new version of its site today, one designed to look and feel something like iTunes (or the much-anticipated Spotify). In addition to a cleaner user interface and more seamless playback, the upgrades include a much easier way to add songs to an online locker without uploading them from your computer -- or paying for them. It's similar to something imeem offers, but I found Grooveshark's version quite a bit easier to use.
You might wonder what's the point in having a personal collection on a site that lets you play any song you wish on demand. For starters, a virtual collection helps manage the huge amount of material available online. Grooveshark relies on users to supply many of the tracks in its library, so it may have multiple versions of a song. Virtual collections also simplify the process of creating playlists. And the fact that it costs nothing to save tracks in an online library encourages people to save tracks they're curious about but not committed to. Sort of like dating. And that's what Grooveshark really is about -- enabling people to sample and discover new artists, then share their discoveries with friends. One shortcoming, though, is that Grooveshark (like imeem) doesn't make it easy to save an entire album to a personal collection. And if you want to save a lot of tracks, you have to upgrade to the paid version.
Still, it's easy to see where these things lead. Throw in a mobile application and you've got a comprehensive service -- one that starts to look like a substitute for a conventional music collection. Why assemble (and pay for) your own stash when you can rely on thousands of other people to share theirs with you? Granted, it's no match today for Napster or Rhapsody, which are more comprehensive (especially when it comes to new releases) and offer an editorial layer (descriptions, bios and the like) that's missing from Grooveshark. And it may never be -- those services keep improving too. Nor does Grooveshark, whose automatic playlisting function is a great alternative to radio, provide much help in the car. But it's free, and that price is hard to beat.
-- Jon Healey