I’m in the process of writing an ebook about music collecting. I’ll probably add some book excerpts on my blog. This URL will regularly be updated with new information, so feel free to check later.
Two years ago I wrote about great ways to learn about free creative commons music. Since that time, a lot has changed. Jamendo continues to grow bigger, Free Music Archive has grown larger too.
But most people are more interested in learning about pop music by emerging artists who have risen somewhat above amateur status. These artists agree to share a lot of music even though this music is still copyrighted and isn’t creative commons. Often these free downloads are available only for a limited time, so once it stops being free, you may have no choice to purchase it. You can amass a large and wonderful collection with samplers alone (though it would be shallow).
Before I start listing things, I want to mention that most of these free sites provide links to high quality downloads. In the past, the thinking went, “we should make available low quality music samples for downloads” in the hopes that later the consumer will buy a high quality version. That strategy no longer seems to be popular, and fortunately most of the free download sites listed here are now distributing high quality audio with the correct metadata.
South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Bit Torrent contains music tracks by bands who participated in SXSW music fest in Austin. Starting in 2005, a 5-9 gigabyte bit torrent was released each year (Total = 45 gigabytes!) These artists explicitly allowed these tracks to be downloaded from the sxsw.com, and the torrent simply assembled everything together for permanent archiving. Torrents are released in early March of each year, generally in two parts. Available: permanently. As of 2013, a lot of the music distributor sites are also featuring SXSW samplers –and often they include additional tracks not in the torrents.
CMJ Mixtape is a monthly download of 20+ songs from College Music Journal. The link says you need to “subscribe,” but that’s not true; all you need to do is to click the link and you should be able to download all the music in single zip file. CMJ is “College Music Journal,” a wonderful mag primarily for college radio stations. I subscribed to it in the 90s, and one highlight was the sampler CD which each issue contained. Samplers in the 90s were wonderfully eclectic and international; Mixtape seems a little more selective and possibly with an Eastern/urban bias. Available: one month only.
Live Jazz Lounge is a blog linking to 200+ zip files of various live jazz performances. There looks to be an average of 2-3 free releases per week, so a lot is here! These zip files are hosted on their own website, so they are likely to be available indefinitely (I think).
American Songwriter has an irregular sampler which contains more acoustic/country/folk songs by singer-songwriters. So far, once every 6 months. Available: until the next sampler is released. Because it’s infrequent, you should sign up for their mailing list to be notified about new samplers. Available: until the next sampler comes.
NPR’s Heavy Rotation surveys a lot of DJs and asks them to recommend some tracks each month. Their list of recommended downloads appears in batches of 5 or 10, at the rate of once or twice a month. Unfortunately the download link is somewhat easy to miss (it’s at the bottom of the song description), and you have to download each song individually. On the plus side, NPR is more likely to get tracks by well known artists. Available: several months, or until the artist decides to make the download private again.
Denovali is a German-based online seller of electronic/ambient/jazz music. They publish a lot of free albums and tracks including samplers. I count at least 5 full samplers of really remarkable stuff. (You can listen/download them from Soundcloud as well). Available: indefinitely I think.
Chandos/Classical Shop sends out a monthly newsletter which offers information about a free downloadable classical music album. Chandos is a UK label which publish a range of high quality recordings, including the always interesting and excellent Brilliant Classics series of low-priced recordings. Notably, these albums also include album notes. (You can buy these mp3s on amazon or emusic). Unfortunately, you need to know the newsletter URL to be able to find the download link, but they seem to stay online for about two months. (Still working downloads can be found on an older newsletter and a newer newsletter, but I would be ready for either link to go dead at any time. )
Music Retailer Sites
Many of the online music retailers sites provide a lot of free samplers for members. Most will be specific to one label and specific to that distributor.
Amazon has by far the greatest number of samplers, although the quality of them is not particularly high. It depends on the sampler and the label obviously. The top free album list is here. Unfortunately there’s no way to sort by release date, so you just have to check it often. The best thing about these samplers is that it goes directly to your Cloud Player; you can opt not to download until you have figured out which songs are worth keeping. The Tunecore samplers have been good. Here’s a search for free samplers. Look for samplers by established labels: Subpop, 4AD, Merge Records . Also, look for Tunecore samplers.and CDbaby samplers. Tunecore (like CDBaby) is for a lot of indie unsigned bands; quality varies, but these samplers are almost always interesting. Available: mostly permanent (with a few exceptions). I’ve noticed that Amazon has retired some Tunecore samplers, which I hope is not a trend.
Emusic doesn’t have as many samplers as Amazon, but the ones they have are more interesting. Often in fact, they coordinate a label’s sales with the release of a new sampler. Unfortunately it can be cumbersome and time-consuming to find these samplers. A blogpost from 2 months ago linked to their most significant samplers although it’s already out of date. Go here first to see articles about samplers which will inevitably contain links to the downloadable samplers as well. (Update: Here’s another search result for free albums but unfortunately about 40% of the albums actually cost money, so be careful!). I almost always love emusic samplers. You may have to sign up for (non-free) membership to download the samplers, but it almost always is a good deal. Even if you sign up for only 1 month at $6, you can usually find deals, plus Emusic typically gives new members a $25 credit to buy new music. (Here’s a list of my latest musical finds – which are usually priced low). Available: permanent. Note, there is also a free song of the day for members. I only started downloading these things recently, and so far it has been totally noncrappy.
Google Play has free downloads although not really free sampler albums. That of course will change as Google Play becomes a stronger distributor of music. When you first sign up for Google Play, you are allowed to download a certain number of free songs by very well known artists. When I signed up, I was able to download 800 individual preselected songs. I seem to remember that you had to download the songs individually. Google Play features freebie songs on a daily basis, but I found keeping up with this more trouble than it was worth.
Bandcamp has a number of respectable bands and lots of interesting music. Here’s a list of all their free albums by popularity and by release date. A fair number of these free albums are creative commons, so you might also be able to find them on jamendo and Free Music Archives. Some of the free albums require that you give them an email; the link for the free albums also lists “pay-what-you-want” albums, so you will inevitably have to give your credit card and make some sort of token payment.
Although I wanted this article not to be about creative commons music, (I’ve already written about that) I wanted to mention 2 special aspects of archive.org.
- Live Music Archives list recordings of a lot of live shows by musicians. Many musicians have several concerts recorded here. A lot of these recordings are bootlegs; some are band-approved, but generally if it shows up here, that usually means that the band tolerates recording. Generally the landing page gives a list of the most recent uploads and staff picks. I confess, although I have listened to 2 or 3 concerts here, I have not even scratched the surface of what is here.
- IUMA Archives. IUMA was one of the earliest music hosting services popular in the late 1990s and early 200s. A lot of this is hit and miss, but there are some hidden gems to be sure. Here is a list of its most downloaded and recently reviewed.
Although I’m not going to point to specific artists, Soundcloud and ReverbNation have a tremendous amount of free downloads. Soundcloud in particular has a lot of extended mixes — although now that I check my favorite artists, I see that items which I downloaded earlier are no longer available for free downloading. Like Bandcamp, even if you cannot download a track for free, you usually can stream them for free.
I really don’t know if these music promotion sites which offer daily freebies are worth the effort. Clicking individual songs can be tedious — both on Google and Amazon. My guess is that many of these are from the bigger labels and for tracks which might be included in free albums eventually, so these freebies may not be particularly high quality. If you’re just clicking to add them to the cloud, then it’s not a problem, but how do you know whether to actually download them. Nonetheless, it’s time to start a list.
- Songzini provides links to free 5-10 Amazon songs each day. It’s a good idea, but it’s tedious to do. Still, there’s a good mixture of well-known and unknown singers, so it might add up. But watch that hard drive space! Update: It’s still around, but it is really time-consuming to download individual songs — especially when a lot of them are in free albums you may be able to find on amazon’s search engine. Also, Amazon emails you a receipt for EVERY SINGLE SONG so it will clog your email with receipts — yuck!) Update 2: I have finally gotten around to listening to all the random songs I downloaded using Songzini. It is terrific! As long as you make sure that the song doesn’t come from a free album which you downloaded already, you’ll be fine. Update 3: Although the site is still up, it seems to be totally nonfunctional. Oh, well.
Quirky Music Download Blogs
By now there are quite a number of blogs which unearth lots of overlooked bands from previous years. Often the blogger will upload the digitalized content onto a file downloading site, and the site visitor can download the zip file of mp3s by clicking on a link to the third party file hosting site. These blogs are great for discovering old bands; on the other hand, 1)downloading from these places may not be exactly legal by US standards and 2)the hosting sites frequently remove content or go out of business, so the download links may stop being valid fairly quickly. The quirky download blogs generally try to share music which hasn’t yet been digitalized or that is so obscure that there’s no way people would have heard about it otherwise. A lot of these bands are simply defunct and so it’s impossible to purchase these tracks anyway. Generally those blogs will take down the download URL if the band contacts them, and so to that extent, they follow copyright law, but I think these kinds of bloggers are more interested in rediscovering and in making compilations of overlooked tracks. And the bands generally don’t seem to mind (if they still exist). Hint: a lot of these blogs don’t include the download link in the blog post itself but in the comment section, so be sure to check the first comment at least.
- Willfully Obscure is probably the best example of the quirky music blog genre, with lots of commentary and background information about each new download. He emphasizes a lot of raw punk and garage bands from the 1980s, with occasional self-made compilations. I think this blogger probably rips his own CDs, and each week has about 2 or 3 downloads, plus a “mystery download” every Monday. More importantly, this blog links to a lot of other quirky music download blogs on the right column.
- I hate the 90s blog features a lot of 90s music. I confess I have not really followed it, but I wanted to mention that the left column includes links to 6 different compilation zips to download.
- Bloggio Odio Overplay blog features a lot of unusual content. A large number are creative commons, and Katya, the woman who runs it also curates music at FMA and runs a site collecting kid’s music. Recently she has taken an interest in classical, but she also digs up a lot of novelty music, lounge stuff and vintage European stuff.
- 11 Incredible Albums You Can Download for Free! (My pick of the best jamendo albums, plus interviews with them).
- Robert’s Musical Finds on Emusic. I have a one year subscription to this.