Downloadable downside 

There’s music out there, and it’s free!

Yes, there has been much printed bluster surrounding the vast landscape of downloadable music on the Internet. Usually, these songs and sounds are available in the MP3 format, a form of digital encoding that allows music to travel from the World Wide Web to your very own home computer.

All you need is a modem fast enough to handle all the information streaming into your PC, speakers on said computer, a software program that can translate and transfer the MP3 files from the Web to said computer (for later use or transfer to CD or a portable music player), a software program that can play the songs on said speakers, and the patience to wait the 3-15 minutes it takes to download a song.

Oh, yeah, and you need to know where to find the little buggers. And this, dear friends, is the heart of the problem.

Much of the spilled ink surrounding MP3 and downloadable music has thus far focused on, naturally, the business of music on the Web. After all, we consumers should understand the machinations by which those who would sell us music are getting shafted by the democratic anarchy of the World Wide Web.

The Recording Industry Association of America, with its vested interest in maximizing profit for both artists and major record labels, would have us feeling as guilty as a teenager "stumbling" upon a porn site when we download free music from the Internet.

But – not to dismiss the importance of copyright and the downloadable music business – just how the hell are music fans supposed to a) find and b) download and use the MP3 goodies? You know, practical access to the supposedly democratic world of free music?

Plunk the characters "M," "P" and "3" into any search engine and you’ll be bombarded by results: MP3.com, MP3.net, MP3.org and on. Increasingly, sites such as emusic.com are partnering with record labels wanting to make at least a partial catalog of artists available to online buyers. Most of these sites are mini-fiefdoms comprised of independent musicians searching for that elusive virtual audience.

As easy as it sounds, heaven help you if, like me, you use a Mac. Just finding the device through which to play audio files is a frustrating search through a haystack for a needle that may or may not sew up the tear in your patience. (In the interest of saving you the trouble, visit Mac.org for the shareware solution you'll need.)

Back in the day (you know, about six months ago), downloading music was an exercise in Zenlike patience and, often, futility. Users sometimes waited up to 30 minutes (depending on their modem) for a track that as often as not didn’t play. But competition and commerce have ways of making these processes faster, so that you, the loved consumer, can purchase the product without getting all in a tizzy at the site, the record label, your service provider or anyone else.

But innovation is still necessary.

It’s crucial to your online musical enjoyment that you be able to locate hip-hop-world-funk-jazz tracks (if that’s your bag, baby). One site that may be pointing the way to the best of both worlds is listen.com.

Less than a year old, listen.com perhaps shows the way of the Web future with a collective of larger, medium and small independent labels which provide the raw sounds online.

By offering free music downloads (often by up-and-coming artists or rare, unreleased or live tracks by established artists), listen.com keeps credit-card-wielding surfers around long enough to perhaps indulge in some pay-to-download tracks. In fact, most of the better-known artists on the site offer pay-per-downloads that are linked from labels or other online music warehouses such as emusic, cdnow, realnetworks or myriad other sites.

This networking function takes this business a step further than merely putting the goods online. Listen.com acts as a searchable nexus for newbie Web music surfers by aligning itself with other music sites and content providers (the very people that make the Web useful in the first place).

The site also offers a user-friendly presentation of more than a handful of daily Web music specials (such as free downloads of electronic artist Moby performing live), a neatly organized menu of genres (which, in turn, break down into multiple subgenres) and – once you’re at the musical neighborhood you’ve been seeking – critical evaluation of the bands and MP3 files available.

Add to this an immanently simple tutorial guiding newcomers into the world of online sounds (including terminology definitions, links to software, players and much more) and listen.com may be the first model of a brave new user-friendly world of Web music – a world in which people can really point and click and realize the potential we’ve all heard so very much about.

More by Chris Handyside

Best Things to Do In Detroit

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.