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Music Downloads

Options for music downloads offer fans a number of ways to listen to, buy or even rent music.

Music downloads bring a world of sound to your home. [© Jupter Images, 2009]
© Jupter Images, 2009
Music downloads bring a world of sound to your home.

Since the rise of Napster, the once illegal music trading site, music downloads have grown into a legitimate, multibillion dollar enterprises that drive sales in the recording industry. The ability to transmit music files over the Internet led to the creation of services such as iTunes and AmazonMP3. And though Napster was reinvented as a legal music subscription service, piracy still thrives through file sharing networks like Gnutella and BitTorrent.

In fact, IBISWorld, a business research publisher, reports that 38,000 years' worth of music was traded over peer-to-peer networks in 2006 and less than 10 percent of that was downloaded legally. Though big record labels have struggled to cope with falling CD sales, music downloads have revolutionized the way artists build a relationship with their fans. Listeners can download music from musicians' Web sites, so musicians are free to set their own price and maintain control of their work.

Music Downloads for Musicians

The easy availability of music has also changed the way it is made. In a new take on the traditional recording scenario, producers can now manipulate tracks remotely by downloading raw cuts and uploading the finished product to protected servers. Other producers use music downloads to create mash-ups, in which a cappella tracks from one song are laid over the music of another. Film makers, television producers and software developers can also find royalty-free music downloads available for background music and sound effects.

Music Downloads for Sale

In the world of legal music downloads, iTunes consistently gets top ratings for its intuitive interface and seamless integration with Apple's line of MP3 players. According to PC World,the program's Genius function gathers data from users' current libraries to recommend music they might like. Because iTunes records the number of track plays and user ratings, Genius can make very accurate suggestions.

Recent updates to iTunes have garnered attention for Apple. Formerly, digital rights management (DRM) software prevented users from freely sharing the songs they purchased, and from transferring the songs to a non-Apple MP3 player. Also, all songs, regardless of their popularity, were priced at $0.99. Today, iTunes downloads are DRM-free, and a majority of the songs in its catalog are $0.69. The tradeoff is that popular new songs now cost $1.29.

AmazonMP3 was always DRM-free, and its downloads are compatible with just about any portable digital music device. Users familiar with shopping on Amazon will be very comfortable navigating the service. Like iTunes, AmazonMP3 lets shoppers buy a song or an album with one click, and are then directed to install Amazon MP3 Downloader, if they don't have one already. Amazon MP3 songs can be automatically sent to Windows Media Player or iTunes. Though Amazon's library is not as comprehensive as that of iTunes, it does offer more than 2 million tracks. The upside is that Amazon's songs are, on average, significantly less expensive.

Subscription Services for Music Downloads

Some digital music providers have moved away from the traditional pricing structure to a subscription service, where users pay a monthly fee to access music. The least restrictive of these by far is eMusic, which charges users a variable monthly rate to purchase blocks of songs, anywhere from 40 to 90 total songs. At $0.25 a song, it certainly costs less than AmazonMP3 or iTunes. However, its catalog is weighted heavily toward indie music; users won't find many of their favorite top 40 hits. Moreover, users must purchase their allotment of songs within the month. For those who like to explore new sounds, eMusic might be ideal.

Subscription services like Napster, Rhapsody, Yahoo Music Unlimited and Virgin Digital offer a different twist. Instead of buying music, users essentially rent it with their monthly fee. These services heavily restrict copying and sharing, and if users decide to cancel their subscription, they loose all their music. Of these offerings, Napster is the most expensive, but it also offers the largest catalog. Its songs are compatible with any portable music device except those from Apple.

Yahoo Music Unlimited and Virgin Digital are the bargains of the group, though their catalogs are limited. Yahoo Music Unlimited has a rather limited catalog and is only compatible with Windows. Users have the option of purchasing access to tethered downloads, which can only be played on registered computers, or untethered downloads, which can be played on compatible music devices. Subscribers also have the option of buying tracks that can be burned to a CD for $0.79 a song. Those who use Yahoo Messenger can share music with their friends.

Indie and Empowered Music Downloads

Musicians who want to sell records and connect to fans but still maintain control of their work can partner with sites that specialize in promoting independent music. Independent download sites vary greatly when it comes to how much they charge for tracks and the size of the artist's cut.

The most creative of these services is Amie Street, a site that offers more than 1 million songs DRM-free. It takes a community approach to pricing music: as a track becomes more popular, its cost rises accordingly. Artists keep 70 percent of their sales. Indiepad lets artists set the price for their music, but charges an initial $25 membership fee and takes $0.55 from each song sold.

Free Music Downloads

Those looking for free downloads online will find a site to fit every niche. A quick look through the comprehensive list offered by BestMp3Links.com confirms that there is a massive amount of free music out there, much of it legal. Some of it is mainstream music offered as a free download for promotional purposes, while other groups offer their entire catalog to get listeners interested and build a fan base.

Sites like RoyaltyFreeMusic.com and Loopsound supply free music for those who want to incorporate it into a computer program, podcast, movie or any other type of audio/visual media. RoyaltyFreeMusic.com is entirely free to those who use its downloads for educational or nonprofit purposes; those involved in a commercial project must purchase. Loopsound makes no such distinction. Visitors to these sites will find that they are very practically organized. Music is grouped by length and genre, so artists looking to fill time can pinpoint exactly what they are looking for.

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