"I download (legally)," the famous musician says in the hundredth or so ad I've seen that tries to guilt consumers into shopping at online stores like Roxio's Napster 2 and Apple Computer's ITunes. I see where the Recording Industry Association of America is going with that, but I think it's missed the point once again.
Amidst all its campaigning against file sharing, the RIAA lost sight of (or more likely decided to ignore) one thing: There is a bunch of perfectly legal free digital music available on the Internet. Here are a few of my favorite places to find it.
Get your free tunes here
Better Propaganda is a decent music news and reviews site that also happens to host free preview MP3s from bands like Modest Mouse, Interpol, and Guided by Voices. You'll find a bunch of sites offering preview tracks in a similar manner (I've mentioned Pitchfork in previous columns), but few organize them as well as Better Propaganda. Each artist gets their own page on the site with a bio and links to reviews, articles, and hosted MP3s. Not bad.
Beyond preview tracks, there are a bunch of independent and unsigned artists recording who've chosen to make their work freely available for one reason or another. MP3.com used to be the place to find that type of free music. The site hosted files for thousands of unsigned bands and musicians until CNet bought it late last year. Many of those files have made their way over to Garageband.
Other musicians offer their work under a Creative Commons license. Terms vary, but basically such a license allows anyone to freely copy a piece of work as long as certain conditions are met. For example, an artist might stipulate that you can't produce derivative works from the composition, or that copies can be made for noncommercial purposes only.
The upshot is that you can find a bunch of free music (and other interesting stuff) published under this type of license. Head to Common Content for a directory of sites housing Creative Commons content. The Get Content page at the Creative Commons site also has a nice listing, as does the Internet Archive: Open Source Audio page (one of my favorites).
Finally, the Net has also managed to revolutionize the old tape-trading industry, in which über-dedicated fans would swap bootleg tapes, CD-Rs, or DATs of live concerts. Many groups -- jam bands like The Greatful Dead and Phish are famous for it -- support taping as long as fans agree not to sell those recordings. I'm generally not a jam-band kind of guy; but if you are, you'll appreciate Etree.org, a site that helps fans share live recordings of bands that have an open taping policy. The site focuses on lossless compression recordings of the shows (no MP3s), and it's hooked in to BitTorrent, which helps you get downloads faster. Its BitTorrent page even includes helpful options to show or hide all Grateful Dead and Phish recordings.
New ITunes: Apple recently released version 4.5 of its popular media player. Cool new additions include a feature called IMix that lets you publish playlists for others to see, the ability to rip tracks in a lossless compression format, and a new dynamic playlist called "Party Shuffle." The automatic links to ITunes Music store aren't so cool, but you can turn them off easily in Preferences.
File sharing with heart: Wilco's new album A Ghost Is Born isn't due out until June 22, but it's been available for download from file-sharing networks for a while now. Instead of suing its own fans, Wilco came up with a different approach: First it made the new disc available in streaming audio on its Web site. Then it built Justafan.org, which encourages fans who download the tracks before release to make a donation to Doctors Without Borders. At this writing Wilco has raised upwards of US$8,400.
In heavy rotation
Set to stun: I was recently reminded of a band called Phaser and its album "Sway." One of its dreamy electric pop songs popped up on my favorite TV show. I love it when that happens.
Thank you, shuffle play! "Do it Again," a track from Matthew Sweet's overlooked Altered Beast album, popped up on my headphones this week. It's a great track with the beginnings of an electric Wall of Sound feel to it. The album's all over the place musically and probably a bit overproduced, which is why it got overlooked when compared with Sweet's Girlfriend -- which is also amazing.