If you have an iPod and far fewer songs than the gigabytes of storage space you have available, then you’ve probably asked one of iLounge’s most popular questions: “how can I load my iPod up with free music?”
There are at least two answers to this question, one generally illegal, and one generally legal. You’ve probably already heard about the illegal free music options, but just in case you haven’t, we’ll run through the reasons you’ll want to skip them and use the legal free music sites instead.
Illegal Free Music: Downloads with Consequences
Several years ago, the sheer quantity of open challenges to American copyright law created a popular perception that music – old and new alike – was supposed to be free, and “shared” between friends and strangers alike. Upon release of just about any new album (and sometimes even before), full MP3-format tracks appeared on music-sharing services such as Napster and Kazaa, spreading around the world without restriction. Many recording artists were angered by what they felt was mass theft of their music, while others either ignored or embraced the file-sharing.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) decided to fight the “music is free” movement, undertaking highly publicized lawsuits on behalf of artists it represented. Services such as Napster were sued for billions of dollars as facilitators of copyright infringement, and either driven out of business or forced into retreat. Subsequently, RIAA lawsuits against individuals shut down large resources of “shared” music, and warned others that swapping smaller quantities of copyrighted content could subject them to similar legal action.
RIAA lawsuits haven’t stopped the trading of copyrighted music online, but they’ve turned file-sharing into a game of Russian Roulette. For obvious reasons, iLounge does not recommend the sharing or downloading of “free” music from file-sharing services unless you know for sure that the artist has specifically given permission for that music to be shared.
Non-U.S. Music Download Sites: A Dangerous Gray Area
The average person should be aware that there’s likely something wrong about getting entire free albums for nothing, but what if they were offered for pennies per song, instead of ten or more dollars per album? If you pay something for your downloads, is that enough to protect yourself from being sued?
That’s the question posed by a few web services operated by individuals outside of the United States. These sites purport to offer penny-per-megabyte downloads of popular music. One of the more notable, AllofMP3.com, offers a surprisingly robust collection of albums from major recording artists in the compressed audio format of your choice, even including albums from artists such as The Beatles who have not otherwise published their music online. More amazingly, songs are available for download at rates of under 10 cents per track. For years, the site claimed that it was operating legally under Russian law, and although some legal challenges to this were presented last year, the legality of this under Russian law still remains very much in question. Similar competing web sites in other countries, such as Spain’s Weblisten.com and Puretunes.com have been sued and shut down in the past, however.
iLounge doesn’t take a position on the legality of any of these specific sites, as they operate under foreign legal systems and may or may not be entitled to offer the pricing and unprotected files they are selling. We urge our readers to exercise caution before assuming that any “purchased” music from these stores is a replacement for store-purchased CDs or licensed tracks from established domestic vendors of digital music. Keep in mind that just because you’re paying somebody for something doesn’t automatically imply that they’re legally allowed to sell it to you.
Downloading Free Music Without Fear
With so many questions regarding the legality of international and domestic music downloads – questions which in accordance with the RIAA’s litigation strategy have created a blanket presumption of downloading fear that may not be entirely justified – there are only a handful of major free music download sites that guarantee that users are not breaking any laws. The best we’ve seen are listed below.
Firstly, there is the iTunes Store itself, which frequently offers free promotional tracks as part of various albums, and a new free track-of-the-week is offered up each week. The iTunes Store itself provides a Free on iTunes page with highlighted free content.
Another site, www.itsfreedownloads.com also maintains a regular blog of links to free content on various International iTunes Stores. While not all content remains perpetually free, sometimes older posts can yield links to content that is still available but has otherwise disappeared from the iTunes Store’s own promotional pages.
3hive.com: A great blog-style listing of free iPod-compatible songs offered by record artists and labels in an attempt to entice full-album purchases. Songs are in the MP3 format in a variety of bit-rates generally ranging between 128kbps and 192kbps.
Epitonic.com: Offers highly professional, artist-focused presentation of free digital music downloads in MP3 format, with biographical details and short previews for songs across a narrow collection of genres.
Freekidsmusic.com: Along with its sister site Freechildrensmusic.com, provides a large variety of free MP3 format songs for young listeners.
Garageband.com: Not to be confused with Apple’s music creation application of the same name, Garageband.com collects and provides popularity charts of independent music, featuring over 125,000 bands.
MFiles.co.uk: Provides free downloads of well-known classical music in MP3 format.
MP34U.com: A clean, professionally designed interface to individual free songs sorted by genre, selected by site “sources” who pick and post only music they like.
Music.download.com: The music-dedicated expansion of popular software download site Download.com offers free full-length MP3 songs across all major genres, even including Children’s, Spoken Word, Comedy, Folk and Religious tracks. Most tracks are indie.
PureVolume: Offers over 100,000 free songs for download, and captured many of the best users of what used to be MP3.com (before it was scrapped, sold, and completely changed).
RCRDLBL: An exclusively-online record label which provides free MP3 downloads of exclusive music from emerging artists.
Of course, if you can’t find the song you’re looking for on one of these free sites, you can always visit Apple’s iTunes Store or Amazon’s MP3 Store and make a purchase there. Though these aren’t as cheap as some of the questionable international sites listed in the prior section, they are an entirely safe and legal way to get access to over a million songs.
Free Music with a Catch: Ad-supported Sites
Years ago, the most common source of free music for your listening enjoyment was the radio. Radio stations were able to broadcast music from a wide range of artists at no cost to the listener. Instead they made money through advertising services. The “price” a listener paid to listen to free music in those days was having to endure listening to advertising interspersed with the music.
Recently, some web sites have begun to offer a similar business model: You can download free music, but this is either done through a client or web site with very proactive advertising (as opposed to the standard advertising on most web sites), or the music tracks themselves contain brief advertising spots placed at the beginning of each track.
Unfortunately, most of the sites that offer these types of services, such as SpiralFrog and Ruckus Networks (for U.S. college students) only offer their downloads in a Windows Media Audio DRM-protected format that is incompatible with iTunes or the iPod (or ironically, even the Microsoft Zune). Further, these tracks may not be burned to a CD. These sites are therefore generally of no value to iPod owners.
A notable exception is We7, a UK-based ad-supported site whose founders include Peter Gabriel. We7 provides downloads in a DRM-free 192kbps MP3 format, with the catch being that each track has a 6-12 second advertisement grafted onto the front-end. Ad-free tracks may be purchased outright, and We7 also offers a credit system whereby you can convert some of your tracks to ad-free versions once they have been in your library for 28 days or more. Since these tracks are in an open MP3 format, they can be played on just about any digital media player available.
Although primarily a paid subscription music service, eMusic.com provides a free ad-supported music service as well. In this case, the advertising is directed at the user via the ALOT toolbar which is installed in your web browser (compatible with IE6, IE7 and FireFox 2 only).
Downloading Free Podcasts: Radio for your iPod
In addition to free music for your iPod, you can also download “Podcasts,” short radio-style programs produced by individuals and companies around the world. Many of these podcasts include music selections, and some are even dedicate to showcasing independent artists and providing music commentary and review.
While podcasts were originally organized in several independent podcast directories out on the Internet, the ITunes Store now includes an extensive catalog of podcasts which you can subscribe to directly via iTunes completely for free. Podcasts available through iTunes include both audio and video podcasts, and cover an extensive range of topics. Basically, anybody who has anything to say on a regular basis can create their own podcast and get “on the air” via iTunes quite easily.
A selection of music-specific podcasts can be found right in iTunes in the Music Podcasts Directory, which includes a comprehensive selection of music-related podcasts from music reviewers, traditional radio stations, and even directly from both small independent and more mainstream artists.
Finding More Free and Legal Music Online
If you haven’t visited iLounge’s Free Music section yet, now’s the time. We’ve found a collection of great sites that tell you where to get the best new free and legal music online.
Besides the existing iLounge Discussion Forums, which host over 90,000 posts on music (and almost 12,000 on music formats), our Free Music forum offers a place where you can discuss legal ways to find free music online.
Please verify that any links you submit qualify as “free, legal music downloads.” iLounge does not take any responsibility for verifying the legality of any of the sites or services listed, and encourages all users to be cautious before downloading and sharing any other person’s music online.