This is a good time to have an insatiable appetite for music. There are more ways than ever to listen to a wide variety of music for free or very little money, and the future will only bring more. Use free services to explore new artists and, in some cases, share them with your friends. Just one thing to keep in mind: although some of these services are great for spreading the word about bands, the musicians often make very little money when you listen. So if you find something you love, especially when it’s from an independent or emerging artist, consider purchasing a CD. Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy a musician a new amplifier. Also, a note about copyright: Stick to legitimate services. When you download songs illegally, it can introduce viruses to your computer and, also, it’s stealing.
Pandora is a free service that allows you to create custom channels of music you love. You start with a “seed” song or artist, or several, and Pandora uses the research of the Music Genome Project, which analyzes every song for 450 distinct musical characteristics, to find songs that share characteristics. Of course just because a song has acoustic sonority, intricate melodic phrasing and minor key tonality doesn’t mean you’ll like it. So you can “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” songs as they’re played. By doing this you can fine tune a station to the point where it seems like it’s reading your mind. The free version of Pandora has commercials. For $36 a year you can upgrade, which brings you ad-free music and a desktop application.
iHeartRadio is another free digital service. It’s similar to Pandora in that you can create custom channels, but there are a couple of differences. When you create a station, you start with one one “seed” artist or song. That gives you a little less control over the content of the station. Your “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” still shape the station. Also, you can adjust the “Discovery Tuner” from familiar to less familiar artists, controlling the diversity in your station. In addition, iHeartRadio allows you to listen to hundreds of traditional radio stations.
Spotify also allows you to create stations but its real power is the instant access to the millions of songs in its library. You won’t find every song in the history of music in its library but you’ll find enough to keep you really busy. New albums often show up on Spotify the day they’re released. The free version has ads and runs only on computers. For $4.99 a month you eliminate the ads and for $9.99 a month you get Premium Spotify. With Premium you can use Spotify on your mobile devices as well (the playlists you create will be available on all platforms), and even download songs so you can listen to them offline. Offline mode may be useful if you don’t have unlimited data on your mobile device. You may find these services work well together. Discover new artists using Pandora or iHeartRadio and then dig deep into their catalogue on Spotify. Spotify is tightly linked with Facebook, so unless you start a “private session” your Facebook friends will see what you’re listening too. Think about that when your kids are listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio all let you listen to music but not “own” it. If you want to own music (because what if Spotify goes away?) you need to buy CDs or MP3. An MP3 version of an album usually costs a little less than the “hard copy” CD. But the Amazon MP3 store is worth bookmarking because it has great deals all the time, like $2.99 or $5 MP3 albums, as well as freebies.
If you have a library card to a participating library, you can download songs for free through freegal. The collection is extensive: millions of songs from over 10,000 labels including the Sony Music catalog of your country
There are countless other websites where you can download free tunes legally. Noisetrade is a great one. Participating artists make a selection of sample songs available. You can donate money to the artist when you download if you choose. (It’s a nice thing to do.) Free sampler downloads are available from any number of sources on a limited basis. NPR Music offered a massive download of a hundred tunes by artists performing at South By Southwest Festival prior to the festival in March this year. Dead.net grants you a free Grateful Dead download every day of November.
What have we missed? We know there are plenty more options for free and cheap music downloads out there. If you know of other options, please tell us in a comment — as long as the download is legal and not a copyright infringement.