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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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