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Music Site Guide  


Below is a listing of relatively major web sites that offer an assortment of free and legal music downloads. Keep in mind that Fingertips is not about comprehensive presentation. This is not, therefore, a list of all the sites I can find on the web with free and legal music downloads. This is a list of sites that have some good music among their offerings.

More information about this directory, including a word about the four categories of sites (Hubs, Boutiques, Record Companies, Blogs), is available on a separate page.

If you're interested in diving into smaller, idiosyncratic collections of free and legal MP3, don't miss also the Secondary MP3 Resources page and the Smaller Record Labels page.



last updated 10 Jul 09




MP3 Hubs

Insound

The free MP3 section of the indie music site Insound is large, eclectic, and engaging; over time, this is the site that is proving to be perhaps the single best source of high-quality, left-of-mainstream free and legal MP3s on the web. What makes Insound special is that in many cases the MP3s stored here are not available anywhere else.

That said, there will be things here that are pretty far off the wall for many ears, but the people at Insound listen and care about what they're offering, which is a good thing. Browse the site and you're sure to find a few songs by musicians you've never heard of that you'll be very happy to know.

You can find Insound's MP3 storehouse--and it's quite a big one--by clicking here. Another way to find some of the good stuff is simply by clicking on a featured release from the home page that sounds interesting, then seeing if there's an MP3 available--look for the words "free preview" and click there to get to the free MP3.



SXSW.com

Now 23 years old, Austin's South by Southwest Festival, has truly grown into the pop music world's biggest and most influential annual event. Known in particular for showcasing emerging artists--Norah Jones, the White Stripes, and the Strokes are among the acts to have been launched into stardom via exposure at SXSW (as it's called)--the festival has grown to gargantuan proportions, featuring more than 1,500 musical acts from more than 30 countries, performing in some 70 venues around Austin.

To help promote the festival, the web site not only informs attendees who is playing where and when but also features literally hundreds of free and legal MP3s from a wide variety of SXSW artists.

They aren't completely easy to find, however, since the site is not designed as an MP3 hub but as a showcase for the festival's talent year by year. There is no index of MP3s; rather, you have to page through the list of performers to see which ones have free and legal MP3s to download. Plus, everything is separated by year, so the festival has more or less separate sites for each year.

The place to begin for the 2009 festival is here, which presents the bands alphabetically. Each artist's geographical home and genre are noted on the list; when you see a musical note next to the artist's name, that means there's an MP3 available to download.

If, somehow, the hundreds of 2009 MP3s aren't quite enough, there are plenty of MP3s still available from the last four years as well: to poke around the MP3s from 2008, start here; to browse the 2007 MP3s, start here; for MP3s from the 2006 festival, you can begin here; 2005 MP3s are here.

For the last couple of years, my sense has been that SXSW MP3s are not as exclusive as they were back in '04 and '05--the songs you'll find at SXSW tend to be MP3s that are available in other places also. That said, I'm sure there are nuggets to be found, and in any case, this does become a centralized repository, which is helpful in any case.



betterPropaganda

Founded in part by one of the founders of Epitonic (one of the web's earliest free and legal MP3 hubs, now defunct), Better Propaganda gathers onto one site a large selection of free and legal MP3s from worthy independent and otherwise lesser-known musicians.

After a major site redesign in 2008, Better Propaganda is cleaner and easier to look around than it used to be. One of the best places to start seeking new MP3s is (logically enough) the "new MP3s" page; another place is right on the home page, with its regular "song of the day" feature.

While I miss the exclusive MP3s bProp used to have, there's no denying its value as a resource; its archives are large and well worth exploring. Start here on the Artist List page and you'll see how much there is to look through. I will actually be browsing the bProp archives for them on a regular basis--look for a weekly review from Fingertips on the Better Propaganda site starting in the summer of '08, each week finding a great song from the archives to write about.



Amazon.com

Back in the early years on Fingertips, Amazon was a fixture here in the Music Site Guide, and one of the only mainstream web sites offering a nice (if static) array of free and legal MP3s from noteworthy musicians.

By 2006, however, the site had all but abandoned its free and legal downloads. The old ones were still there, but they became really hard to find. This move, in retrospect, was setting up the big change in the fall of 2007 at Amazon: its launching of an MP3 retail section, as a direct competitor to iTunes and the other fee-based music download stores.

If you haven't visited it yet, Amazon's MP3 store is pretty good. They've got lots of songs at 89 cents, rather than the 99-cent standard pioneered by iTunes. And--big plus--these are DRM-free MP3s rather than iTunes' proprietary files.

It took a while for this to develop and/or for me to find it, but as it turns out, in addition to the MP3s for sale, Amazon has also, by early 2009, accumulated a very large inventory of free and legal MP3s--much larger, in fact, than it ever used to have. There are about 500 free songs at last look (the site claims more than 600, but the last 100+ do not actually seem to be available), and while it veers into obscure-land after a while (I recommend sorting by "bestselling," which is the default), there is definitely some worthwhile stuff in here, including songs by Ron Sexsmith, My Morning Jacket, John Doe, Nick Lowe, Bob Mould, and the Black Lips, at least some of which are not available anywhere else. Even though they thank you for your "purchase," and email you a receipt of your "transaction," the cost is definitely free. You will need to be registered with Amazon, however, to grab any of these.



Internet Archive: Live Music Archive

While Fingertips is otherwise focused on free and legal MP3s of songs that are studio recordings, I'd be remiss if I didn't point you in the direction of this gargantuan resource for live recordings, available legally and for free via a non-profit web site called Archive.org.

Archive.org is its own amazing resource which I encourage you to look into, but as we are here to talk about music, you should know that the Live Music Archive is a free, legal, non-commercial storehouse of more than 56,000 live recordings, featuring more than 3,000 different bands. Start here if you'd like to browse a list of all the artists with live music available; in and around hundreds of bands you've probably never heard of are any number of well-known folks such as (of course) the Grateful Dead, Warren Zevon, Elliott Smith, and Smashing Pumpkins, along with any number of Fingertips favorites (the Decemberists, Over the Rhine, and Andrew Bird, among many others). A must-visit for live music fans.



Feeling adventurous? Click here for more web sites that feature free and legal downloads. These are by and large less "professional" and feature mostly obscure musicians, but if you're in the mood for a hunt, you may find some great stuff here as well.




MP3 Boutiques


Filter Magazine
"Good music will prevail," proclaims the Los Angeles-based Filter Magazine, which seeks to rescue us from the barren world created by over-commercial radio stations and blockbuster-hungry record labels. I might personally wish they could do it with a less busy and, in truth, extraordinarily commercial-looking web site, but at least the music is by and large good. Among the offerings on its web site is a Media section featuring videos, streams, and an ever-expanding and usually very interesting selection of free and legal MP3s, at least some of which seem not to be available anywhere else.


Pitchfork
While the site as a whole suffers from both design frenzy and a simmering indie-rock elitism, neither of those things matter much if you're interested in a consistent assortment of good free and legal MP3s. For years you could browse the "Free Downloads" section, which was a somewhat endearing hodgepodge of paid-for MP3 placements (with lots of good stuff in there, actually), but that section was deep-sixed in January 2007 as Pitchfork went ahead and introduced its own blog, of sorts, with the this-will-probably-get-tired-fast name of Forkcast. Every weekday any number of MP3s and/or streams are written up and posted here. Even with this new page, there are still other places on Pitchfork where you might find free and legal MP3s; a good place to check is the News section, as items there regularly come with MP3s attached, occasionally exclusives.


Glorious Noise
This engagingly written, independent Chicago-based online music magazine, five years old already (where does the time go?), offers a homey, spirited vibe of the sort you just can't get from magazines filled with glossy ads and industry hype. In addition to a regular battery of features and reviews, head honcho and all-around nice guy Jake Brown offers an ongoing, hand-picked list of free and legal MP3s he comes across which are always worthy.


Spinner (AOL Indie Music Blog)
America Online, of all places, has been trafficking in free and legal MP3s in a variety of ways for a few years at least. The latest development is something called Spinner, which comes with the slogan "slightly left, always right." Spinner is the sort of blog a corporation seeking to be semi-relevant seems to put out these days. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, just don't expect the personal sensibility that one might otherwise assume is what characterizes a blog in the first place. In any case, I don't come here for someone's personal taste, I come here because AOL being AOL, they are able to score free and legal MP3s that are not always available anywhere else. The full blog features both MP3 posts and other news; the link I've given you at this top of this paragraph goes straight to all the MP3 posts.


NME - The Daily Download
One of Britain's venerable music tabloids, NME has been doing its best to stay relevant in the digital age, a task which includes offering a daily free and legal MP3 on its web site. The stuff isn't always great, and there are a certain number of remixes in the mix (personal pet peeve; I don't like remixes!), but it's a good resource to know about if you're looking for MP3s that aren't otherwise to be found online.


Pop Matters
Calling itself an "international magazine of cultural criticism," the Illinois-based Pop Matter is an agreeable if insanely busy-looking site that covers many elements of pop culture beyond just music. For our purposes, however, note that the music coverage is wide-ranging and eclectic without being too snooty or elitist. Unfortunately they seem to have mucked up their free downloads page by turning it into a so-called "Media Center" and featuring lots of videos and film trailers. Not only doesn't this make any ergonomic sense--why does anyone think films and music are logically grouped together?--but it takes forever to load the page now if you happen to have an older computer. This used to be a regular visit for me but not anymore.


Free Music Archive
Not to be confused with the Live Music Archive (see the MP3 Hub section, above), the Free Music Archive is a new (in 2009) resource of free and legal MP3s that was launched by the venerable NYC-area public radio station, WFMU (which is, you should know, the longest-running free-form radio station in the US). The Free Music Archive describes itself as "a social music website built around a curated library of free, legal audio." Featuring downloadable songs placed online by WFMU, KEXP, and a handful of other interesting musical organizations, the Free Music Archive can be browsed by curator or genre, but you have to thumb through a lot--there are no easy indexes to get a broad look at the offerings. And while the site claims to have more than 5,000 MP3s available, what's here is decidedly idiosyncratic. Still, as a large repository of free and legal MP3s, it's worth a visit every now and then.


Last.fm
One of the most thorough and reputable of the music community sites, Last.fm, in addition to all of its more socially-oriented features, has untold numbers of free and legal MP3s floating around. Start here and see right away how easily you can search by genre (of course that's another thing that bugs me about these places: very very genre-intensive!). I'm not sure how long free and legal MP3s stay online here, I'm not sure how much of an upload free-for-all this ultimately is (I don't think it's that bad), and I don't know if there's a way of looking in particular for the new ones that come online; that said, there do appear to be some worthy artists with free offerings here, including Andrew Bird, Neko Case, Stars, Nouvelle Vague, and Sambassadeur.


The Deli
The Deli ("music recipes from the big apple") is a hodge-podgey-looking site with quite a lot to offer in new band coverage and free and legal MP3s. While focused only on New York City bands, enough musicians end up there after having started somewhere else to make this feel like much more than a local publication. The layout is comfortable but confusing, and the number of MP3s scattered around the site has dwindled over the last year or two, with most music links sending you off to a band's MySpace page these days, unfortunately. The best place nowadays to find MP3s is on what they call their "open blog", which is a string of posts that in many cases offers a direct link to a free and legal MP3. Be forewarned that these posts are from the bands themselves, so there's no editing or filtering. That said, this is NYC we're talking about, and the music scene there is always filled with any number of worthy bands that you may not have heard of yet.


Rhapsody
Long a subscription-only service, Rhapsody opened an MP3 store in the summer of 2008. Songs here are DRM-free, and work on all MP3 players, including iPods. Within the store is a small boutique of free downloads, sponsored by Virgin Mobile. There are about a dozen here and I'm not sure yet if the songs will stockpile or rotate, but what the heck, it's worth checking out, much the same as Rhapsody itself is worth checking out as an iTunes alternative. Besides the DRM-free downloads, another Rhapsody advantage is that you can listen to 25 full songs for free each month, without joining or anything. Note that the free downloads come as .zip files that must then be converted to MP3s.


eMusic
You may know eMusic as the iTunes alternative, featuring more than 2 million songs for sale from some 13,000 independent labels, every one of them in the compatible MP3 format. You may or may not know that eMusic offers some free and legal downloads, in two places. First, the site features an ever-changing list of free tracks; check frequently, as songs will come and go quickly. There's also a completely random--but oddly compelling--page with one free download every day. Songs here come and go without a trace--no index, no past listings, just a new song every day for free.


PasteMusic.com
The music magazine Paste has always offered free and legal MP3s via its web site, but in 2008, the MP3 offerings have been completely overhauled. The good news is twofold: first, there are still lots of downloads available here; second, the offerings appear to be updated now much more often than they used to be. The place to start is here, on the "Free Music Downloads" page. Paste now utilizes an MP3 player technology via a company called Goombah which allows you to browse, play, and/or download any of the songs listed within the player. Note the up and down arrows on the title bar within the player--click there and you'll see an assortment of playlists to browse. All of the songs on all of the playlists--a couple of hundred in all, it seems--are downloadable. There's no direct linking here, so Fingertips is unlikely to feature any of these but there are many good songs to be found, so definitely check it out.




RECORD COMPANY SITES


Barsuk Records
The long-running, irrepressible duo They Might Be Giants and melancholic indie-rock outfit Death Cab for Cutie are probably the best-known of the artists associated with Barsuk Records (although DCfC have sinced moved on to a major label), but you can also find the wonderful John Vanderslice among the label's acts. The web site is sleek, easy to navigate, and MP3-oriented--many of the artist have three (or more) MP3s uploaded. Worth a visit. All 60+ MP3s are listed here, in reverse chronological order by album release date.

Beggars Group, U.S.A.
The "Beggars Group" is an umbrella name for a number of independent record labels, a number that has grown over the years to include, by now, 4AD, Beggars Banquet, Matador, XL, Too Pure, and Rough Trade, among others. Availability of free and legal MP3s at Beggars has come and gone over the years; the company used to be listed here, but the site was really sketchy and ill-tended and the MP3s pretty much disappeared, so it was de-listed. But it's back because the site has been completely overhauled, seems to be decently updated, and, lo and behold, now features a very nice selection of free and legal MP3s on their own page--almost 50, at last count, including songs from the likes of Emma Pollock, Super Furry Animals, the National, Electrelane, Blonde Redhead, and Elvis Perkins. Well worth a visit.

Matador Records
One of the indie world's landmark record companies still boasts a powerful roster of left-of-center artists (including Belle and Sebastian, Cat Power, The New Pornographers, and Laura Cantrell) but in the second half of the current decade has decided to scale back their free and legal MP3 offerings. No longer does Matador gather their MP3s onto one page, the way it used to do; what's more, the number of MP3s offered has dwindled dramatically. To find them requires random hunting: click on "find an artist" on the left and go artist by artist. You can also go to the Matador blog and click on the "MP3" category (or just click here), but there aren't a lot of posts to be had there. Another wrinkle to the sadly diminished Matador experience: you may, while browsing on the main site, stumble upon some dead links and out-of-date pages (e.g. the "What's Up" page--"the place to look for the newest features and additions"--has gone nearly a year without a post when I last checked). Maybe they're hoping that, given the clean and friendly design, you might not notice.

Sub Pop Records
Once upon a time the most active progenitor of the "grunge" scene in Seattle in the early '90s, Sub Pop remains an active, not-quite-that-small small record label, with about three dozen active bands and a few dozen other acts that used to record for Sub Pop but have either moved on or broken up (or both). Among the label's current big-shots are the Shins, Iron & Wine, and Band of Horses, although I'm kind of tickled that Mudhoney, one of the original grunge bands, is still on the label and still alive and kicking. Lacking a centralized listing of all its MP3s, Sub Pop does offer a brief list of its seven or eight newest MP3s on the home page (scroll to the word "listen" in the middle column). The only way (I think) to find everything now is to go to the artists page and search artist by artist. There are, however, a good amount of quality free and legal MP3s here so definitely give it a try. (And don't, by the way, overlook the "inactive" artists, some of whom also have MP3s on their pages.)

Vagrant Records
This Santa Monica-based label has acquired a powerful roster over the last few years. At the same time, the web site does not appear all that active, and the MP3s, of which there are a few dozen at least, are somewhat difficult to find. You can see 10 of them here, but after that you have to hunt artist to artist. Among the two dozen or so artists on board are the Eels, the Futureheads, Paul Westerberg, the Hold Steady, and the Lemonheads.


There are a whole lot more small record companies than you can possibly imagine, many of them offering free MP3s on their web sites. If you feel like browsing through some largely obscure (but often worthy!) music, click on this paragraph to go to the Smaller Labels Page.




MP3 BLOGS

For more information on what MP3 blogs are and why Fingertips will actively refer you only to a small number of them, click here.

(For a complete list of all blogs--both music-oriented and otherwise--that link to Fingertips, click here.)


Largehearted Boy
Self-described "music-loving guy living deep in the American South," Largehearted Boy is a literate, thoughtful, prolific fellow named David who runs a widely-read music-centric blog that features a whole heckuva lot more MP3 suggestions than Fingertips does, plus daily pointers to interesting music articles and interviews from around the web. I have no idea how he finds all these things and how he has the energy to do this every single day; I continually tip my hat to him in admiration. Oddly enough he seems to run a blog called "Fingertips" as well, but it's about massage therapy.

Some Velvet Blog
A mix of MP3 links and interesting music news and observations, Some Velvet Blog is the work of WXPN program director Bruce Warren, one of few "industry" people (XPN however is a so-called "adult alternative" station, not a big-time mainstream monstrosity) who has wholeheartedly embraced the internet music scene.

3hive
Tended by a team of seven (used to be three, then five) affable and capable writers, 3hive is a refreshingly clean and well-organized blog. There is one post a day, each featuring a few sentences about one artist, with accompanying links to however many free and legal MP3s the artist has available (usually two to four). I particularly like how well-rounded the writers are both in terms of their knowledge of music history and their awareness of the breadth of rock's genres and sub-genres.

Stereogum
Stereogum is one of the web's longest-running--and, by now, most professional-looking--music blogs, and arguably the only site that started as a blog that has become, for all intents and purposes, a high-profile music publication in its own right. As such, its MP3s have, over the years, managed to go from being illegally posted to legally posted: the songs on the site are in fact free and legal. Check here for a listing of all MP3s dating back to December 2006; note that sorting by artist produces an iTunes-style listing with folks alphabetized by their first names. Someday soon no one will realize this is wrong, which means someday it won't be wrong. I still don't like it, however.

Chrome Waves
Chrome Waves is a granddaddy among MP3 blogs, having been up and running since 2002. Frank, the guy who does the whole thing, has good taste and an almost incomprehensible energy for going to concerts. Not only can he actually write pretty well (a bonus, and a rarity), but he knows enough about music to admit when he doesn't know something. By and large, his blog features only free and legal MP3s; definitely do yourself a favor and check it out.

One Track Mind NEW
One free and legal MP3 every day is the story over there at One Track Mind, a blog which is "produced by a super-secret cabal of veteran music writers" that meets "once every full moon in an undisclosed location where a series of constantly changing passwords is required to gain admittance." Actually it seems to be some guy in Denver. I can do without the incessant need to have people "rate" things but it's not a bad place to go to check in on a regular flow of potentially interesting new music.

Jonk Music
"Every day a song from around the web," says the tag line here. That's exactly what Jonk Music offers, no more and no less: one free and legal MP3 sourced from somewhere else on the web, every day, complete with the original write-up. Jonk Music itself adds no new material, just provides a reliable filter service. In a way it's a sort of relief: one less opinion cluttering up the web. This a nice place to check into regularly to discover songs you might otherwise have missed.

Hear Ya
Hear Ya is a music blog written by four friends who also, it so happens, have a producer friend in Chicago who regularly records exclusive live sessions for them, with the live songs offered as free and legal MP3s; among the 40 or so bands recorded live so far are a number of Fingertips-featured artists, including the Morning Benders, Joe Pug, and Your 33 Black Angels. Regular MP3s shared daily on the blog are also free and legal.




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MP3 AGGREGATORS

Starting back in 2005, there arose the phonemenon of the "MP3 Aggregator"--a site created with the purpose of collecting in one place the MP3s being posted on MP3 blogs all around the net. The mere concept of it is somewhat exhausting to me, and inherently belies the so-called convenience such sites claim to offer: I mean, seriously, if there are hundreds of MP3 blogs posting hundreds upon hundreds of songs per day, every day, what good does it really do to have one site you can go to purportedly to see (and listen to???) all of these songs. There are only 48 hours in a day, after all. I also cannot in good conscience condone aggregators when they are blithely collecting MP3s from around the net whether legally distributed or not. That said, these sites do exist, so if you want to see a short list of them and read a bit about each one, be my guest.






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