Finding Free and Legal Music Downloads on the Internet

Mark Sabbatini By

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Here's a strange thought: Free music downloads available legally are better than what the masses are stealing.

Either allows jazz fans to collect a diverse library large enough to listen to indefinitely, especially since more is constantly put online. Those going the legal route can't be as selective—the latest Norah Jones or Kenny G album isn't there—but much of what's available is, well, priceless.

And, yes, a lot of it is dreck.

Live performances by some of jazz's biggest talents, work by underrecognized musicians worldwide, and sampler collections and outtake material from record labels are among the highlights for listeners knowing where to point their Web browsers. The options expand enormously for those who don't need to possess songs, as the vast majority of performers with sites allow their music to be played in a streaming audio format.

The live performances may be the most interesting, especially for jazz fans. Plenty of well-known bands such as Bela Fleck, Charlie Hunter, and Medeski, Martin and Wood allow audience members to tape performances, which inevitably make their way to the web. Also, a handful of performers post their own recordings of concerts, including Hunter—who goes even further in his generosity by providing high-quality CD covers listeners can print.

In fairness, it helps if the listener finds thrill in the hunt—sometimes a lot of browsing generates few hoped-for results. Also, quality and quantity vary widely—but there's also no wasting bandwidth on a song that's been turned into a "dummy" file by music industry anti-piracy hackers.

Finally, a plea on behalf of the sponsors, so to speak: If something is so impressive it results in the purchase of album, show ticket or something else by the performer, let them know it's because of their online posting. At the very least send them an e-mail of thanks. The more positive feedback they get the more likely it is they—and other artists—will believe free postings are worthwhile.

OK, so much for preliminaries—what everybody obviously wants to know is where's the good stuff.

The following list is hardly comprehensive, but does result from a search of as many Web sites by record labels, listener groups and other jazz-oriented site as could be located. It will be updated as time permits. The focus is almost exclusively on content that can be downloaded in unprotected MP3 format. Other file types tend to not work on certain computers and players, and streaming audio is easy to find from many sources and may be the subject of a future article. Also, listings focus first on larger and lesser-known online-only options, followed by well-known sites such as Amazon.com, CNET and major labels/artists.

Internet Archive

This place is flat-out amazing. An unbelievable selection of live shows mostly taped by fans (with permission), albums from Web-based record labels, older songs, educational material and much more is here—and that's just in the audio section. When listeners are ready for a break they can move on to movies, documents, millions of abandoned Web sites that have been preserved and other material (the same can also be said of a number of other open-source sites listed below). Its interface isn't perfect - getting to the downloads can take a few clicks and audio formats vary (many are large uncompressed files)—but there's enough here to keep nearly anybody busy for a long time.


Enormous collection of songs by independent artists, sorted by genre, with extensive information provided by reviewers and users. A better collection of real jazz than many other open-source sites, with a number of artists whose work once was available at the original free mp3.com (a totally different page now). Single-song only download process is a bit cumbersome and requires free registration.

Internet Underground Music Archive

Similar in concept to the Internet Archive, but not as large or detailed. It features an enormous collection of independent artists sorted by genre (an advantage over the Internet Archive), but lacks "big-name" performers. Also, there are few details about song files, a drawback when dealing with unknown acts.

Creative Commons

Hundreds of albums by musicians participating in a program that freely distributes an enormous range of artistic and educational content. Much of it is the electronic/ambient music common from such artists, but there also are a number of jazz-oriented albums for those willing to peruse the listings.

Open Sound Resource

Another haven for free "open source" albums by a wide variety of artists. Navigation isn't quite up to the better sites of this type, but at least using their "index of words" option allows browsers to select several in the category of "jazz," plus others that may hold promise for listeners.


This might be the richest source of all when it comes to legal live recordings, but there are two factors that must be considered: 1) Files are not compressed, so files are roughly 10 times as large as those at other sites and 2) etree is a peer-to-peer service similar to those where illegal file trading occurs, and requires software that allows other users to download files from your collection of these files while online. But in many ways this is the free exchange system idealists envision when it comes to the Internet.

U.S. Army Bands Online and other government sites

No kidding—this is at least worth checking out. In addition to nuclear bombs, it turns out your tax dollars are spent on musical interpretations of Van Gogh and the space program. Since it's the government there's a bunch of recordings and live performances free for the downloading, along with an extensive collection of other material including educational content for musicians. Among the sites are the Band Of The U.S. Air Force Reserve and, to cite one of many specific performance sites, a concert of 19th century band music by the Music Division of the Library Of Congress that took years of planning. Many more can be found by going to www.firstgov.gov and doing a search for "mp3" and "jazz."


Everybody seems to be doing blogs these days and this is one of the better ones focusing on music downloads. A lengthy daily post generally ends with a list of recommended downloads. His other material is interesting, but those wanting to save a considerable amount of time can do a site search for "daily downloads," which results in several hundred of his lists.


Probably the best place to sample well-known artists, as many make one or two songs from various albums available. Almost everything is accompanied by listener reviews, although many are far too complimentary.


This CNET site is similar to Amazon, but frequently has more songs by artists available and they tend to be small-label or independent performers. Musicians generally provide good descriptions of their work.

National Public Radio

Streaming audio is everywhere; this is mentioned as an example since they're a worthy cause and they offer strong material that's a bit different from the norm. Audio and video files of exceptionally talented artists not only performing, but discussing, their work are available as free streams and—like many NPR shows—can frequently be purchased.

Record Labels

Telarc Records

More generous than most major labels in their online offerings, with nearly 100 songs from various jazz artists such as McCoy Tyner and Michel Camilo available.

Palmetto Records

A great example of a label using the Internet to offer something different. About 20 unreleased outtakes, rough mixes and live cuts from various performers can be found here .

Individual artists

Among the best offerings by major artists are guitarist Charlie Hunter with three albums of live and studio performances, saxophonist Greg Osby with about a dozen live performances from the past several years and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt with a half-dozen live performances. Similar material is posted by many artists, but surfers will likely strike out 19 of 20 times as they search for the large collections (although one or two songs are frequently available).


  • Searching for "free MP3" on Google will likely cause more headaches than rewards, but there are two good alternatives. One is Google's "Sound File" directory . The second is searching Google's "Groups" section, accessible from the search engine's main page. Two good discussion groups are rec.music.jazz and rec.music.bluenote.

  • Songs are more likely to be available at a musician's site than the label they record for.

  • Listen to a song or check its file size before grabbing everything at a site, since many files are only short excerpts (some sites mention this, some don't). One minute of MP3 music takes up roughly 1MB of memory, so a file that size is almost certainly a sampler.

Discuss digital music on the AAJ Bulletin Board .

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