Hypertext Student Newsletter: Hungry For Cheap Music? Legal Downloading Options Abound on the Web

This story was originally published in the Winter 2004 edition of the Hypertext quarterly student newsletter. Go to http://scg.ucdavis.edu/hypertext/2004winter/winter04.pdf to view a downloadable PDF of the entire newsletter.

The variety of online music options is like a smorgasbord for your ears. But before you illegally download music with your free file-sharing program, remember that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is still suing and penalizing copyright infringers. Fortunately, there are many other ways of accessing digital delights from your favorite artists that won't get you in trouble with the RIAA or Student Judicial Affairs.

We've identified four basic components of digital music services: free samples, Internet radio, music a-la-carte, and monthly subscription services. Most sites offer a combination of these features and at a range of prices. Here we've tried to make them easier for you to sort through.

Free Samples

If you're thinking about buying a CD, you can first listen to clips of music through your favorite artists' Web sites. Most popular artists offer 15-20 second previews of their songs to encourage you to purchase their CDs. You can also stream music videos at music television Web sites, such as Country Music Television and MTV.

Chef's Surprise: Web Radio

Many online music providers offer varying qualities of Web radio. Free Web radio is available, but often with poor digital quality and limited musical selection. Users generally have the option to pay to upgrade to better digital quality and a wider variety of music. Many radio services allow you to customize your music preferences. For example, Launch Music, sponsored by Yahoo!, offers an online radio station that streams music from the genres you select as your favorites. Live365 is also organized by genre, but the music here is programmed by listeners who act as DJs by posting their playlists.

Music a-la-Carte

If you're willing to open your wallet, the Internet has many digital music stores that allow you to purchase individual songs for very low prices. Most services offer songs for under a dollar, with Napster, Apple's iTunes and MusicMatch charging ninety-nine cents per song. Some sites, such as BuyMusic, allow you to preview a 15-20 second clip of the song before you download it. An important reminder for buyers who wish to transport files to a digital music player, such as an iPod: make sure your music files are compatible with your player. MP3 is not the only file format (there are others, such as .wma and .aac), and not all players support all formats. Check the service's Web site to see which portable devices are compatible with its music.

Musical Buffet: Monthly Subscription Services

Many of the online music providers, like Rhapsody and MusicNow, offer subscription services that combine a digital music store with the option of streaming music. For a small monthly fee, you get access to a very large, legal collection of albums. You can select the songs you want to hear, but you can't download them directl y to your computer. You can, however, save your playlists and access them from other computers. A majority of the songs can be purchased and burned onto a CD for cheaper than what it would usually cost in the store (although lately, CD prices have been falling significantly).

As you can see, there are many ways to legally listen to or download digital music and pay much less than the cost of a court settlement with the RIAA. Do some comparison shopping, and take advantage of these guilt-free digital music sources.