With organizations like the RIAA knocking on the doors of downloaders everywhere, finding and downloading music online can be a dangerous hobby. Ethics aside, the legal troubles that can result from downloads could have you paying fines for the next few decades. Fortunately, there are multiple websites that aim to provide free, fully legal music downloads. You may not find much from this week’s Top 40 Hits, but in my opinion at least, that’s not much of a down side. Some of these sites provide new independent music, while others focus on the older public domain recordings. We’ll go through each to see what they offer.
With the abundance of music related websites in existence, I had to choose a particular set of criteria for which sites to include. To be included in this list, a site had to provide free MP3 downloads (not just streaming) for a significant portion of their available music. Also, downloads had to be available to all, without registration. This is by no means an exhaustive list of such sites, and if you have a favorite not listed here I would welcome comments and links at the end of the article.
Among the oldest music download sites still in existence, MP3.com has gone through a few phases in the past. When I first used it about 10 years ago, it was populated with independent musicians and used as a place to share, download and buy their music. These days it has morphed into a more commercial enterprise, hosting mostly streams and including a large list of high-profile musicians. Few of the well-known tracks offer MP3 downloads, but there’s still a wide variety of indie artists who do.
If you like older recordings of classic artists like Leadbelly, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday then this is the place for you. The selection isn’t very large, but it’s got tracks you’d have a hard time finding anywhere else. It seems to focus mainly on blues recordings but has a fair amount of jazz, swing, and even some classical.
Were it not for persistent troubles with their streaming software, I would probably list GarageBand.com as my favorite of the sites listed here. They’ve got an extensive list of genres to choose from, a large collection or artists and tracks, streaming “radio” to discover new music, and reviews for many of the bands and tracks available. Not all tracks have MP3 downloads, but many. Among the sites reviewed here, GarageBand has, in my opinion, the best “one-stop” music experience. You can choose a “radio” playlist that will pick songs from within your chosen genre, find and stream individual tracks, or of course download the MP3s.
As hinted earlier, the only thing holding me back from giving GarageBand a glowing review is their stream player. Perhaps it’s just me, but in the weeks I’ve been trying it has not yet properly played a single track on Linux or Windows XP.
With GarageBand’s streaming difficulties, I’d pick the Free Music Archive as my favorite of the sites listed here. It’s got a fairly wide selection, clean simple site design, and allows browsing by genre. Much of the music available on FMA is licensed under Creative Commons, so it can also be a great source for samples and tracks to use in remixing. Speaking of remixing…
This site is unlike any of the previous ones, not just in content but in purpose. The idea behind ccMixter is that users can post tracks or individual samples for others to download and remix or re-purpose. For example, you can download individual vocal tracks with no music, and create your own guitar line to match with it. If you choose, you can then re-upload your new and improved version to share with others. Someone may take your version, add some drum & bass and make a club mix. Not that that’s necessarily an improvement.
Do you know any other useful websites with free, legal downloads? Let us know in the comments section!