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Introduction

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The idea of music as a consumable commodity, something to be picked up, used and discarded off hand would probably have seemed laughable to my parents' generation. And yet here I sit, in 2008, a young man of 20 years and that is exactly how I perceive and, indeed, consume music.

Music is out of the concert hall, out of the home and in our Walkmans and iPhones and iPods and iRivers. It pervades every aspect of our lives, whether it's the dull yet strangely invasive soft jazz of a lift, or the bleatings of the latest X Factor winner blasting out of HMV in a shopping centre there is no escape.

The way we purchase our music has evolved, too. While some of us still refuse to give up on the humble CD (yours truly included) the growing trend is for music to be purchased as a digitally downloaded, single-serving unit.

Subscription services such as Napster and MSN Music even allow users to not only stream from a huge catalogue of artists, but also (albeit for an extra bit of cash) download files for use on a portable player. It's the best of both worlds and there's a huge element of convenience, too. If I've built a playlist I want to continue listening to, but have to leave my PC, I can chuck all those songs on my player and cart them off with me.
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Going further, to a large extent you don't even have to pay to listen to music any more. Services like Pandora, may your UK presence be restored soon, and Last.fm allow music to be streamed to a PC, a Sonos system or even a phone (thanks to iPhone, Java or Android apps). Of course these free services are restricted to streaming, but for many that's more than good enough.

A lot of streaming services have also taken the good parts of social networking - the ability to (theoretically) connect with like minded people - and applied them to the tricky business of recommending music. Lots of other people listening to Green Day, for example, also rated New Found Glory highly, so I'll probably like that band, too. With a little user input, voting suggested tracks up or down, the system gets pretty damn accurate, pretty damn fast. It's a better way to find new bands than listening to BBC Radio 1 anyway - of that I'm very sure.

With great choice comes great confusion, though and it's hard to tell which service is the one to go for. Luckily we're here to help, so let's take a look at what makes all these different music acquisition methods tick.

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