17 July 2008

Plug of the Week: Free Music

I don't have a lot of money, but I listen to a lot of music. I pull the budget end of the rope toward the music end of the rope, but I can never quite get them to touch. I fill the gap with free music. Free is good. I like free.

Free is not the same as stolen. I believe in paying people for their work, because it is right and because it encourages them to keep doing it. I am not peer-to-peer pure anymore--I finally tried BitTorrent to see how it works and get something that is out of print--but it is just not comfortable for me. There is a lot of music that is offered for free, though.

The first stops are artist sites and their pages on MySpace and Purevolume (and probably others I haven't gotten to yet). Most everyone has a widget that lets you play some of their tracks. If you have the patience and a tether to a web connection, you can play those over and over. I'm not sure whether the artists mostly put these up to bring traffic to the pages or to directly increase sales with free samples; either way, it has become expected. (I think a lot of newer indie bands put them up just so people will hear them.)

You can also listen to music on web radio of various flavors (including Last.fm, Pandora and Batanga), but mostly that is tethered, too.

If you aren't happy being tethered like that, you can get utilities that will let you grab whatever is being sent to Line Out (the speakers) on your computer. I use Audacity (free program!) for that and can recommend it for this. (I don't know how well the more advanced features work.

I have mixed feelings about grabbing these, but I have come down on the side of taking them as free samples. MySpace and Purevolume both let the artists choose to enable direct downloading and mostly they don't, so I am not sure how much they object. I balance that against the way I use them. I do playlists for people and that means I have to listen to a lot of stuff to choose what to program. So far, that is turning into track sales, so I am hoping that my Karma balance comes out right.

PayPlay.fm understands Karma. They have a system of Karma points that you can use to download tracks that the artists have identified as Karma tracks, for free. You get points for signing up. logging in, buying tracks, and writing album reviews. This really is an excellent way to explore indies and to get free stuff. In theory, your downloads are limited by how many Karma tracks you accumulate, but I buy enough there that I have never come close to bottoming out.

Last.fm has a different approach. They also have tracks that artists have made available for free download, but there is no limit to how many of them you can get. They have pages with top downloads listed and also pages with downloads they recommend based on your listening history. You can even subscribe to a feed that will ship you one of your recommended tracks every day. They have more stuff from label-based, big-name type acts, too. It looks like Soundflavor.com has a similar setup, but I haven't had a chance to play around with that yet.

There are other approaches out there. TrueAnthem.com has sponsored tracks. You can download whole albums, but the tracks have the artists speaking little "sponsored by" blurbs at the beginning. This is not a problem for the work part of my listening, but it is a little irksome for pleasure listening. Radiohead released its most recent album as shareware. You could download it and pay whatever seemed right to you. That would have let you get the album for a penny-equivalent. I don't know of any other bands that have done this, but I'd be surprised not to see it again soon.

There is another outlet for free music that I haven't explored yet at all, but which looks like a big playground with cool toys: Creative Commons Audio.

"Creative Commons" defines the spectrum of possibilities between full copyright — all rights reserved — and the public domain — no rights reserved. Our licenses help you keep your copyright while inviting certain uses of your work — a “some rights reserved” copyright.
Their page points out to a variety of CC applications, including artists who make material for remixing available, a service that matches you up with music licensed for P2P distribution, a try-before-you-buy music label, and a service that helps artists take advantage of CC licensing to make money off their music. I think I am going to have some serious fun with Creative Commons.

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