A Grown-Up’s Guide to Legal Music Downloads

The reason for the title is simple: we all know that a world of music is available for the stealing from any number of sites. But if you want to download music legally – and if you are going to pay for it you might as well get it without any DRM copy protection restrictions — what are your choices?

Before embarking on this project, I asked my kids if they have ever heard of any of these services. Other than iTunes, I got blank stares. Of course, none of them pay for their digital music, and don’t care. Here are the five sites that I spent time with:

eMusic.com offers several different monthly subscription plans for what they claim are from two million DRM-free songs. The cheapest is for 30 song downloads at $12 per month, up to the most expensive at $20 for 75 songs a month. No matter which plan, you get 50 free downloads and you can cancel your subscription at any time. If you want to be really mercenary about the whole deal, you can sign up, take your 50 songs, and cancel within the same day, without spending a dime. You have to sign up before you can browse their store, however.

Rhapsody.com from Real Networks claims more than four million songs, and you can just listen to the full length of up to 25 tracks a month for free, provided you sign up and give them the right to send you unlimited email solicitations. (They are a bix obnoxious in that regard.) If you want to download them, you pay 99 cents per most songs or $10 per most albums. You can only download a song once, and if you use their Windows software, it will automatically add the songs to iTunes (but not Windows Media, they are still a bit huffy after the lawsuits). Mac or Linux users can download a zip file with multiple songs included, and then you have to manually import them into your music library.

Amazon.com has “millions” of songs, but unlike Rhapsody you can only listen to a 30 second sample and not the entire song. They have optional downloading software for Windows, Linux and Mac that will add them automatically to iTunes (or Windows Media) and makes buying multiple tracks simple. If you don’t use the downloader, you have to download one track at a time. Each song is 89 or 99 cents, albums range from $6 to $10. The ones I purchased had fairly high encoding rates of 256 kbps. You can only download them once like Rhapsody.

iTunes Music Store (who claims a catalog of five million songs) is beginning to experiment with DRM-free music from some of its publishers. The songs are 256 kbps encoded and cost the same as the copy protected songs. If you have bought a DRM’ed version previously you can upgrade for an additional 30 cents a track or a third of the price of the original album purchase. To do this (not that you want to give Apple any more dough), you go to the iTunes Store within the latest version of the software, click on the link for “iTunes Plus,” and then click on the upgrade button. It will show you which of your tracks can be upgraded and what it will cost. Unlike the other services, you are buying an AAC file rather than an MP3, but most portable and PC-based players will be okay with this format.

Finally, there is SpiralFrog.com, an interesting site run by a friend of mine that doesn’t charge for its downloads, but only gives you music that contains DRM. They claim 800,000 tracks and have a large music video selection as well. You need to be running a recent version of Windows, Windows Media Player and dot Net Framework. Unlike eMusic, you don’t need to register and Install their download manager to browse the site, so you can get an Idea of what they have to offer. But once you install their software, you can download whatever you desire. And one other limitation: you can’t copy their tracks to more than two portable players, and you can’t play them of course on iPods. You also can’t play them on Zunes, which shows you how messed up Microsoft’s DRM Is.

So there you have it. There are some choices, other than stealing your music. If you want to do a lot of downloads, I would go with eMusic, especially if you go beyond 15 or so songs a month, but it is a subscription service and right now you might feel as I do that you are paying enough between monthly charges for premium cable, premium DSL, and premium unleaded gas.

If you are the occasional downloader, as I am, then Amazon makes the most sense, especially as I have my music on my Mac and it has a nice client for that OS. You can turn on the one-click ordering and it is effortless. I don’t like Rhapsody’s corporate culture, and if you use the iTunes player the imports into your library is cumbersome. And while the iTunes Plus Music Store is trying to get more DRM-free tunes, most of its music is still copy-protected, so best to steer clear until that changes. Finally, SpiralFrog has an Interesting twist on the music download, but since I am Mac and iPod-based it Isn’t for me.

What Are the Music Download Sites?

Most people in the west have some sort of mp3 player nowadays and the vast majority of them are iPods. Once you have an iPod the question is where to download the media files to fill it? First you need to decide what kind of media files you are looking for. All players will play music files but many will also play video and some will even display text although perhaps you’d be better getting a kindle for that. The first music download site many people look to is iTunes, whilst this is certainly an easy option it may not always be the best. iTunes can often be expensive and it doesn’t always have the music you want on it. Did you know that iTunes only just gained the rights to sell Beatles records in November 2010!

So we established that iTunes isn’t necessarily the best place to go so where is better? Well first off we need to consider the type of format you want to download. For music the classic format is mp3, this is based on an audio data compression algorithm which was first developed by Ernst Terhardt. This takes advantage of a perception limitation in human hearing discovered in 1894. Modern mp3′s first appeared in 1995 they rapidly became massively popular due to their small size, this made them easy to share on the internet. The first major site distributing these files was Napster however this distributed them for free illegally and was quickly shut down it now sells music to download legally.

If you want to download videos then the most commonly used format nowadays is mpeg-2. iPods however use mpeg-4 this format was introduced in late 1998 and contains many of the elements of the previous mpeg formats. Most sites which allow you to download mp3s also allow you to download mpeg-2s but the mpeg-4s you need to run on an iPod can sometimes be a bit harder to find although this is improving. One valid option is to acquire a video encoder these can often be picked up for a reasonable price.

So now you’re a bit clearer about what you want to download it’s time to look at the places you can find to download it. There are a lot of fantastic music download sites out there on the web such as eMusic, Zune marketplace and of course iTunes. Most of these sites offer some sort of free deal to get you to sign up. My advice is to take advantage of all these free deals then you can get a large amount of music for free completely legally.

Music Downloads Aren’t Taboo Anymore

Almost everyone is downloading music nowadays. With the advances in technology, even CDs are dropping in popularity. Who wants to cart around a book of CDs when you can fit twice as many songs on an MP3 player that fits in your hand?

One of the biggest problems with music downloads is that people try to get them for free. Illegal downloads are one of the most serious problems that the music industry faces. Some people don’t think it matters whether they get their music through illegal channels, but the problem has gotten so big that people who download pirated music are being prosecuted.

To keep yourself in the clear, and support the musicians you love, you need to make sure that the music downloads you get are legal. If you are unsure whether a certain site is selling music legally, there are some things that you can check.

The first thing to check is how long the site has been around. Pirating sites are usually shut down fairly quickly, or at least have a lot of problems keeping themselves going. If a site has been around for a long time, they are probably legitimate.

Also, check the names of the songs and artists. If the titles have a lot of misspellings and weird punctuation, the site is probably selling the music illegally. Scrambling the titles and names is an attempt by the person running the store to confuse people searching for pirated material. This is not usually very effective.

Something else you can check is the prices of the songs. If you’ve visited legitimate music companies, you probably have an idea of what music downloads cost. $.99 is a fairly common price for one song that has been out for awhile. If their prices are way lower than this, the music is probably pirated. If they are giving it away for free, you can almost guarantee it is.

Some people still don’t see a problem with downloading music illegally. But there is something they never seem to think about. If the person running the website is unscrupulous enough to cheat musicians out of their paychecks, what might they be willing to do with your personal information?

Buying downloads through completely legal, well established channels not only protects the rights of the musicians, it also protects you. Buying music really isn’t that expensive, and downloading it legally is still usually less expensive than buying a CD.

But the most important thing is that buying music legally keeps you out of trouble. You may think you’re safe because “everybody’s doing it” but there are hefty fines and jail time involved for those who are caught, and there is no way to know if you will be that person.

Find a music store that has been around for awhile and that offers downloads at good prices. Once you find a download store that you like, you’ll be glad to know that the people who earned the money are getting paid, and that your MP3 is full of legal music.