If you’re like most group fitness instructors, having current and motivational music has always been a priority. The right tunes can make a big difference in your classes. Luckily, good songs have never been more accessible. Whether you need an entire CD of indoor cycling songs or just one track for your cardio cool-down, downloading music from the Internet may be the way to go.

Browsing online music libraries is exciting, but learning to download, install or upgrade software can be time-consuming and intimidating. Don’t get discouraged. Once you find the service that works for you and become comfortable with its functions, you can get new music with just the click of a mouse.

High-Tech Health Clubs

You’re preparing for an indoor cycling class and need a new hill-climbing song. You go online and, with a few clicks, download the song you heard yesterday on the radio, load the song onto your MP3 player and arrange a playlist for tonight’s class. You plug your player directly into the club’s stereo, and voilà! You’re in business. Marcos Prolo, group exercise manager at The Sports Club/Irvine in Irvine, California, says this approach just may be the future of music in our industry. More than a dozen of his instructors already
operate this way.

“In order to have variety, we used to carry bags full of CDs to our classes,” says Prolo. “Now, in just minutes, we can download a new song, add it to our playlists and burn one CD to take to class.”

The MP3 player, an electronic device that plays digital music files, enables
instructors to be flexible with their music choices. “You can shuffle your playlist and make last-minute song decisions right
before class without ever touching a CD,” Prolo says. To accommodate instructors who use MP3 players, Prolo’s club installed a convenient connector on the front of each stereo. This eliminates the need to plug and unplug wires at the back of the stereo cabinet.

Not every facility is ready to embrace technology at this level, but managers
at many clubs are rediscovering the
important role music plays in member satisfaction. As a result, they’re helping
instructors learn to use the Internet as a music source.

Chaundra Tangi, group exercise coordinator at the Greenwood Athletic Club in Greenwood, Colorado, has set up a designated computer station where instructors can download music. “Music is such a huge thing here, and it’s critical our instructors aren’t only exceptional teachers, but also have great music for their classes,” she says. Management also plans to subsidize downloading fees.

Demystifying the
Music Download

If you have access to a computer with an internal or external CD-R drive (the hardware that “burns” audio files to a CD) you can benefit from the many online music sources. Downloading to an MP3 player will produce better quality because you’re using a “first-generation” music file. However, the sound quality doesn’t suffer much when music is burned to a “second-generation” CD. If you’re concerned about time—and who isn’t?—you should allow yourself at least 2 hours to browse, choose the tunes you like and either download them to an MP3 player or burn a CD.

It’s difficult to know which programs and Web sites are compatible with your computer, what types of software you need and which ones are legal. Here’s an overview of some popular ones, garnered from my own personal experience searching the Web and asking other fitness professionals their opinions.

Apple’s iTunes 4.2 for Macintosh and PC is arguably the most user-friendly and comprehensive music-downloading service available for free. It offers 500,000 music tracks, including numbers from all five major recording labels and 200 independent artists. You can preview 30 seconds of any song before purchasing it for 99 cents, and you own the music you download. Make as many CDs as you like for your own personal use.

In addition to purchasing music, you can sort your songs by artist, title or genre; compile playlists; burn CDs; allow other iTunes users to listen to your music library when online; and sync your music files with Apple’s digital music player, the iPod. iTunes users can’t transfer files to any other portable device. If you don’t own an iPod, you’ll need to burn a CD if you want to take your music with you.

The majority of music-downloading services and software programs are available for Windows users only. Pressplay and MusicNet, offered through the Yahoo, MSN and Roxio Web sites, allow you to download copyrighted music files legally. These services limit the number of times you can burn a track to a CD, however, and CD burning is available only when you are connected to the Internet.

RHAPSODY at Listen.com offers streaming files only. For a monthly fee plus a per-track charge, you can burn CDs but you can’t download directly to your hard drive or MP3 player.

Napster.com, the Web site that ignited the recording industry’s crackdown on illegal file sharing and downloading, is back with a new, legal and easy-to-use service. Napster’s free 2.0 version of its software is ample for the occasional user. The premium version is $9.95 per month and offers
unlimited access. With either version, you pay 99 cents per song. You can use Napster to manage your music library, create playlists, burn CDs and sync your music with a variety of MP3 players.

Musicmatch® Jukebox 8.2 offers a robust music library, extensive music organization options, CD label printing and even a way to convert records and tapes to digital music files (are you ready to dust off those old singles?). You pay one flat rate of $19.95 for the software, plus the industry standard of 99 cents per song.

The Music Store at Real.com has competitive prices but fewer selections. A $20 credit card preauthorization is required, and you must download the software for RealPlayer 10 to get started. You’re limited to transferring music to two brands of MP3 players, but once you’ve downloaded a track, you can burn it to an unlimited number of CDs. The catch is that you can make only five CDs from any one playlist. This check system keeps bootleggers from selling or sharing multiple copies.

BuyMusic.com sells music by the track and works hand in hand with Windows Media Player 9. The site features a helpful video tutorial that takes beginners step by step through the downloading process.

Even Walmart.com has joined the online music scene. The discount giant charges just 88 cents per song. Instructors will
appreciate the wide variety of songs free of explicit lyrics. This resource is especially convenient if you teach hip-hop workouts or classes for teens, where current music is welcome, but profanity is not.

Be the Master of Your Mix

For many instructors, mastering the music download is a feat in itself. Once you get a taste of the instant gratification that comes with downloading the hottest new single for tomorrow’s class, you’re ready
to move on to the next level. Try software programs that let you mix tracks together; match musical phrasing; speed up and slow down tracks; and endlessly manipulate songs.

If you have a penchant for the tech world, try Sony’s Sound Forge 7.0. It will take up to $450 out of your teaching paycheck, but the editing options are limitless.

MixMeister Express 5 is a more
instructor-friendly program available for a fraction of the price. Jason Sherr, an instructor for 24 Hour Fitness in Costa Mesa, California, recently discovered MixMeister. He uses it to edit music for his indoor cycling classes. “I can mix several songs together to simulate a long stretch of road,” he says. “I use the tempo adjustment to make the song faster and faster as we reach the end.” He also creates motivating music for endurance profiles by looping parts of instrumentals into a hypnotic rhythm.

If you teach step, high-low or kickboxing, you’ll appreciate the beat- and phrase-matching features that allow you to mix together countless songs “on the phrase.” MixMeister tells you the beats per minute (bpm) for each song. If you mix together tracks with different bpm, you can use the tempo-editing feature to achieve a consistent tempo for your CD.

Final Note

Our computers are wonderful tools that make our lives easier, but things do go wrong. When the computer that made buying and assembling music so convenient flashes indecipherable error messages, here are a few tips that may help:

  • All the Internet tools for acquiring music discussed in this article work best with a broadband (DSL, cable or T1) Internet connection.
  • Music files come in many digital formats. Not all software and portable devices are compatible with all music files. Before purchasing either hardware or software, check to see what types of music files you currently have or are preparing to download.
  • Music files are typically small, but once you start adding to your library, your hard drive will fill up quickly. If you plan to own a high volume of digital music, it’s worth purchasing an external hard drive. This way, you can store the music separately from your main computer but connect the two when you need to.

The Internet is a dynamic, rapidly changing environment. New Web sites crop up daily, and it’s worth staying on top of the emerging technology. Like vinyl records, audiotapes and CDs before it, the Internet is a tool we can use to help more people discover the joys of exercising to music.