Doing Digital Music Downloads Right: An Introduction

Mark Sabbatini By

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The most important thing for beginners to know is MP3s are by far the best choice and usually the most common at free sites.
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Everybody has to learn for the first time what an MP3 is.

Those new to such digital music jargon might also be put off by horror stories of song traders getting arrested, legal services ripping off consumers and $500 walkman-type players that can't even be used while jogging. But there's another world where even a novice can legally collect a gold mine of free treasures using only a Web browser and without providing a scrap of personal information.

Also, for as little as $30 a newcomer can show up at the gym or airport with a digital music player that's in many ways just as useful—and sometimes more so—as those megabuck geek gadgets. I know—I have both kinds of set-ups, and use the cheap and simple option just as often as my iPod.

I also belong to two music download services and browse others occasionally, but a large portion of my favorite and highest quality material consists of freebies such as concert recordings, albums from emerging artists, and sample songs and "extra" material such as outtakes from a wide range of musicians and record labels.

This primer focuses mostly on starting simple and cheap—and avoiding rip-offs—with some basics on additional options for those who find digital music to their liking. Detailed information about subscription services, schemes to avoid, bargains and other aspects of online music is featured in other articles in the All About Jazz music download section.

Getting Started
File Formats

Starting out: Simpler than using a search engine

Contrary to popular instinct, don't enter the world of online music by searching Google for "free MP3s."

Doing so will suck novices into a mind-boggling number of sites, often run by hustlers trying to make a deceptive buck. The best bet is starting with a few proven sites and techniques, expanding as your comfort level does.

First-timers can stay busy for a long time—and perhaps build all the jazz library they'll ever need—with two simple approaches:

  • Major sites such as Amazon.com and music.download.com : Keeping things simple means picking from a number of good choices. These are safe, free, well-known and often feature reviews by editors or users. Amazon offers one or two songs from albums by performers known and unknown in every music genre; CNET's music.download.com focuses more on emerging artists, but is easier to use, often has more songs, and features useful descriptions of the groups and files.

  • Artist sites: Using Google to search for "Jeremy Pelt," a trumpeter who has won two straight Downbeat "rising star" awards, results in a list topped by his official site . It offers a virtual boxed set of his work completely free, including six concerts and live performances from radio studios, accompanied by details about the players, songs and settings. Few artists—especially well-established ones—are this generous, but they usually offer at least a sampling of their discography and/or material not released commercially.

If you're really new to the online world, here's how to download songs if the web site doesn't provide instructions: click the right mouse button (or hold the key and click a single-button Mac mouse) on any link that ends with ".MP3" and choose the "Save selected link as..." option from the pop-up menu. The song should download to the location you specify.

Playing songs on nearly any recent computer should be as simple as double-clicking on the newly downloaded file. With any luck a program that plays the song will start up or your computer will list a menu of programs that can play it. If nothing happens you either need to set up or obtain a music program, which is beyond the scope of this primer: If your computer's instructions are of no help, go to www.download.com and search for "MP3 players." A list of free programs, complete with descriptions and reviews, should result.

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File formats: Simpler than a phone number

A lot of alphabet soup is tossed at people when it comes to music file names, but most listeners will do just fine knowing a set that's shorter than a phone number: MP3, AAC and WMA.

All are basically the same thing: Songs compressed to a tiny fraction of their "normal" size. The most important thing for beginners to know is MP3s are by far the best choice and usually the most common at free sites. WMA and AAC songs frequently use copy protection that keep them from working on certain computers and portable players. They're also becoming more common, especially at paid sites, which is another great reason to roam the world of freebies.

Two notes for those who can handle just a wee bit more technical knowledge: 1) WMA files usually are geared toward Windows PCs and services such as Walmart's music store, while AAC files are for Macs and those using Apple's iTunes Music Store. 2) Audio purists may start deluging you with information about sound quality, file sizes and a lot of other stuff about why one format is better than another. Ignore them, at least for now. It's all generally good enough for most users.

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Paying for it

Free downloads are great until that insatiable urge for Kenny G's latest release kicks in at 1 a.m. on a Sunday.

That's where paid music services like Apple's iTunes Music Store come in. At their best such services offer the immediate gratification of a massive selection that costs a small fraction of CDs. Unfortunately, it's more common to run into problems such as files that won't work on portable players, songs that won't play if you stop paying a membership fee, questionable pricing and other pitfalls thanks to music industry gurus obsessed with copy protection.

Such schemes are easily overcome by experienced hackers who do most of the illegal file sharing, so honest consumers get the short end of the stick. But protection schemes are here to stay and getting more common. So instead of complaining (plenty of other sites are devoted to this futile task if you really want to vent), we'll focus on the best ways to be assimilated.

But first...

Rip-off alert #1: Do not use or believe the hype of sites such as My-Free-Music.com promising billions (seriously) of free MP3 downloads. First of all, they're not free—they'll ask you to pay $25 upfront for a two-year "membership." Second, they simply refer you to illegal file swapping services that are already free. Anything illegal remains that way despite your "membership"; the only winner is the person that now has your money.

Rip-off alert #2: Don't use a paid service that places a time limit on how long songs can be played or which cease to be playable if you cancel your membership. Would you buy CDs from a store that requires you to return them if you stop giving them money? This copy-protection practice obviously isn't as sleazy as claiming something's legal when it's not, but is potentially far more frustrating and likely to take more of your money. Some well-known providers with problems like this is at the end of this section.

At the moment the following are three of the better choices. All feature songs that can be permanently downloaded, burned to audio CDs and copied for backup purposes to other hard drives or computers.

  • iTunes Music Store : With Apple finally supporting both PCs and Macs this is the dominant service as of this writing—and mostly deserves the honor despite a couple of infuriating policies and occasionally questionable prices. A very good selection of well-known and independent performers is generally priced at $9.99 for albums and 99 cents for single songs. The user interface, especially its method of browsing through the vast library, is perhaps the best as of now. The drawbacks: You must use Apple's iTunes program to access the store, downloads are in a copy protected format that work with a limited number of programs and portable players, and the company has a Microsoft-like habit of issuing mandatory software updates that wreak havoc on the computers and music collections of some users.

  • Walmart : Regardless of what you think of Walmart in general, their online music service ranks well ahead of most others. The selection, especially of established artists, is top-notch. Songs cost 88 cents each, regardless of how many are on an album. The drawbacks: Its songs only play on Windows PCs or portable players (no Macs, Linux, etc.). Also, some longer songs are not available as single-song purchases, leaving customers out of luck if they want an entire album containing one (a particular concern in jazz, since extended-length tracks are common).

  • eMusic.com : This relatively obscure service is highly recommended for fans of independent labels and older recordings, offering great value and unprotected MP3 files that play on any computer or portable player. A set number of songs are available for a monthly fee ($20 for 90 songs; other price plans and supplemental packages available). Selection ranges from exception to dismal depending on what you're interested in. Forget chart toppers for the most part, although jazz fans will find some modern big- name acts like Charlie Hunter, the Rippingtons and Chick Corea. The real values are talented underecognized acts and classic jazz - a fan can easily build a comprehensive library of, say, Thelonious Monk for maybe 15 percent the cost of the CDs. Drawbacks: downloads expire if not used during the month, the software interface is a bit awkward and albums with lots of short songs are a poor value due to the per-song system.

  • Think carefully before using: Real Music Store, Napster 2.0, BuyMusic.com, Music Net, Pressplay, Rhapsody and Music Now. Some may be worthwhile, but all have drawbacks of varying severity as of this writing that might catch newcomers unaware. For details and updates check our guide to music subscription services.

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Taking your tunes on the road

You can spend $50 or $5,000 on a portable player and enough digital music for six months of gym workouts - and both for the most part will make you equally happy.

A portable CD player that plays MP3 discs can be bought for perhaps $30, with nothing more required except some blank discs and batteries. Burning your computer's music collection to those discs is something we won't try to explain here - too many computers and programs for a generic overview - but is generally about as simple as making backups of other files and programs (and if you don't know how to do that you really need to learn before your system crashes and you lose all that work).

My iPod spends a lot of time at home because I'm a lot less worried about abusing or losing my cheap portable CD player and discs that cost virtually nothing, not to mention it has an AM/FM radio I can listen to when the mood strikes. That said, I have no regrets about my iPod and it actually is a logical choice for many people interested in more than its trendiness.

There's also a third type of player that is sort of an in-between option. A brief look at each type of player:

  • CD players: They're cheap, play your regular CD collection, easy to use and have a longer battery life than the other players. Blank discs typically store 12 hours of digital music. The main drawbacks are they aren't as portable, are more vulnerable to skipping during active use and some of the cheapest players may have trouble recognizing some MP3 discs - spending a few extra dollars on a "name" player is usually worthwhile.

  • Memory-based players: These typically store one to four hours of music on internal memory chips or on seperate cards similar to those for digital cameras. They cost anywhere from less than $100 to several hundred dollars. They are generally the smallest players - some fit easily on a keychain - and least vulnerable to skipping, making them a good choice for runners (although I'd personally rather drop a $10 cassette walkman if I stumble on the trail). Drawbacks including a high cost for the amount of storage they provide and potential compatibility problems with certain computers and song types - making sure it works with your system of choice is a must.

  • Hard-disk players: Players such as the iPod store songs on tiny hard drives ranging in size from a few to several dozen gigabytes - enough to last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. In addition to storing your entire music collection in a player the size of a deck of cards, some also function as a back-up hard drive for computers files and offer limited PDA-type tasks such as storing addresses and keeping track of your daily schedule. Drawbacks include cost, potential file and computer incompatibilities, and some user interfaces that do a poor job of navigating through those vast libraries. Potential purchases also need to ask if they really need a player capable of storing 10,000 songs, since most people don't have music collections anywhere near that size.

A final buying tip: Although extended warranties offered at computer and electronics stores tend to be rip-offs, purchasing the longest available option for memory- and disk-based digital audio players is something I actually suggest people at least consider. Batteries are known to die, software "updates" can crash players, and "normal wear and tear"—or an accidental drop that isn't "intentional abuse"—can take their toll.

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Related Discussion Topics
All About Digital Music
eMusic - Thoughts & Recommendations?
Legal jazz MP3 sites
MP3 music in the car?

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