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Free music, legal and illegal

The music industry has faced an uphill battle in getting consumers to pay for digital music because there have been so many sources for free illegal downloads from the late 1990’s on. But more and more, labels and artists are starting to see free music as a potential promotional tool. Naturally, they aren’t endorsing leaks and download sources that violate their copyrights, even though these leaks often originate with people associated with a label or a specific artist. But they are becoming more open to making songs available for free in an effort to build interest in a performer’s music.

Free music, legal and illegal

Streaming music sites and social networks are both sources for legal free downloads

Streaming music sites are one important venue for free music, because they only stream songs that are officially licensed by record labels or contributed by the artists themselves. Some of these sites, notably Last.fm, offer complete songs for download in addition to their streaming radio stations. These are typically tracks made available by the artists themselves so they can build an audience, though on occasion a record label will make a specific track available for download. The idea is to build consumer loyalty and make it more likely that listeners will purchase future material from the artist.

Similar thinking informs the music features on MySpace, though its financial troubles may spell its end as an effective venue for artists to promote their music. Artist pages offer either excerpts or full songs for streaming, and some artists make complete songs available to download as well (though some also sell their music through MySpace). But MySpace is also a cautionary tale of the music industry’s unwillingness to embrace radical change, as the major labels have typically confined their offerings to song excerpts and have rarely made full tracks available as free downloads.

Other sites offering free legal music tend to be small communities established by artists themselves, such as Cllct, designed to provide artists with a means of uploading their music and distributing it directly. These sorts of communities tend more towards a sharing mentality than strict commercialism, though Cllct does have a specific section for promoted releases and also lists tour dates for artists who belong to the site.

Illegal downloads are still common, despite the collapse of Napster and other old-line file sharing programs

Free music

But the larger part of the free music available on the Internet remains illegal. Despite the Recording Industry Association of America’s efforts to curtail sharing of copyrighted material through lawsuits and awareness campaigns, it’s easier than ever to find sources for downloading new albums before their official release or without paying iTunes or Amazon. But the old-line file sharing programs such as Napster, Gnutella, and LimeWire are largely a thing of the past, driven out of the picture by the RIAA’s legal efforts.

In the place of these peer-to-peer services, torrents and music blogs now dominate the illegal download scene. The industry has largely directed its efforts at shutting down large-scale torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay, and the negative publicity has led torrents in general to be associated in the public mind with illegal content even though they’re commonly used for legal software distribution. But torrents are largely used by the already tech-savvy, because the average PC user isn’t prepared to deal with technical details such as port forwarding.

Music blogs have become the easiest way to find free downloads, and the greatest threat to the music industry

It’s music blogs, which have largely existed under the radar, that pose the greater thread to the established industry. With a simple Google search, anyone can easily locate a wide range of sites offering music both mainstream and obscure. Some are niche sites devoted to a specific genre or period, such as Musical Coma, which primarily offers electronic music and also doubles as another venue for artists to upload their own music (a previous site founded by the same people, Bolachas Gratis, now acts strictly as an artist-supported promotional site). But others offer the latest pop singles as soon as they hit radio, and make leaks of full albums available anywhere from days to weeks before their official release.

While blogs are occasionally shut down due to copyright complaints, the industry has largely ignored this means of illegal music distribution. This is odd, considering that it’s a lot easier to locate music blogs than it is to install torrent tracking software and deal with all the technical issues involved. Perhaps the labels haven’t been all that aggressive in going after the blogs because the majority don’t host the copyrighted material themselves- they merely link to uploads hosted on file-sharing services such as Megaupload or Rapidshare, and the industry does make copyright claims to get these uploads removed.

The problem the industry faces is that, thanks to its early failures to establish a sensible business model for paid downloads and its heavy-handed tactics in pursuing individuals involved in file sharing (rather than larger-scale pirates), it now faces an uphill battle in convincing the general public not to download illegally. Recent changes in industry policies, such as the announcement that Sony and Universal will release digital singles the same day they’re released to radio (at least in the U.K.), may help to reverse this trend, and the embrace of free downloads as promotional tools is a wise move as well. But it’s unlikely that the major labels will ever be able to stop illegal downloading entirely.