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Yes, Actually There is Some Free


Last week the record companies announced that they had been successful in staving off those awful P2P sites, the bastard sons of the original Napster, where people go get music for free. This announcement was similar in tone and based in the same kind of reality as the Bush administration’s constant mantra that real progress was being made in “liberating” Iraq.

As you must be aware, the record companies’ big idea was to “drive” consumers, like cows in the slaughter-yard, to “legitimate” online music stores, of which there are many: There’s iTunes, and then there are a couple dozen others that don’t really matter. The way they decided to do this was to selectively sue people who their investigators found are using the free P2P services, and then publicize the lawsuits through press releases and advertising campaigns. In particular, college students are targeted, and a typical wave of lawsuits (the suits usually come in groups of several hundred at once) involves suing a couple dozen kids at a couple dozen colleges, and then trying to get all the public-relations juice possible from local and national press outlets.

I’ve represented a number of these kids, and when I tell them that they aren’t really being sued for damages, they seem perplexed. “If the record companies were really after damages,” I tell them, “they sure as hell wouldn’t be suing college kids!” The reality is that the record companies are suing kids so they can tell people they’re suing kids. And last I checked, they’d sued about 20,000 of ’em.

Despite all of the grief, the publicity, the court decisions, and despite their claims of victory, the record companies don’t seem to have accomplished much except to make people hate the record companies more than they already did. Which is quite an accomplishment, when you think about it. While “legitimate” online sales of music have grown appreciably, this probably has more to do with people trending away from compact discs, the way they did from vinyl 20 years ago. The P2P sites are still up and cranking. P2P downloads still outnumber “legitimate” downloads by double-digit multiples. You can still find most anything on the P2P networks if you’re patient and clever, and as long as people participate in them, the P2P networks are indestructible.

But let’s say you’re, well, a little averse to being sued by the record companies, even though the chances of that are miniscule. Maybe you know somebody who got sued, maybe you don’t like risk, even a dinky little risk. Maybe—and this is not an insignificant maybe—you have the righteous belief that music should generally be paid for, and that paying for music is right and fair, because at least some of the money will wind up in the pockets of musicians and songwriters. This is not an irrational or counter-revolutionary belief, and there is evidence that occasionally this actually does happen. Hypothetically speaking.

But you’re not keen on spending a ton of dough on music, either. And you’re really not keen on buying music with all kinds of digital restrictions: like you can only make x number of copies from your download; like you can only listen on your computer; like you can/can’t put them on your iPod/MP3 player; or like when you stop paying your subscription fee, your music library disappears.

Harken! There is legitimate music out there for free. It may not be exactly what you think you’re looking for; it might be a lot better. And most of it you can get as straight MP3s, no strings attached.

Many, if not most, smaller independent labels are giving away at least one song from their current albums. Surf a little bit and you’ll find them. Last week, I stumbled on the Web site for the venerable classical-jazz-blues label Telarc ( Holy Moly! There’s a download page there to die for, and many of the MP3s are at the near-CD quality 320 bps bit rate. Many indie bands, as well, post songs for download on their Web sites, their sites, or their sites. Look around and you’ll find them. is a strange little Web zine out of Singapore, and every week they serve up a gourmet selection of bootlegs and radio broadcasts that have never been commercially available. Not exactly legal, but then this is music you can’t legitimately buy anywhere at any price. The great unreleased 1991 Band album with Jules Shear, Neil Young live in Vancouver in 1970, Springsteen live three months ago on the BBC, some unspeakably weird and wonderful Japanese blues—every week it’s like getting a present, and it’s all high quality and killer-B stuff. Free.

The controversial Russian site has everything—ev-err-ee-thing—for sale for about 10 cents a song. It’s supposedly legal (for now) under Russian law, and some of the money does apparently get to songwriters and labels. It has at least the feel of legitimacy, you can choose the format and the quality of your downloads (consumer choice? What a concept!), it’s fast, efficient, easy and it’s an absolute blast to buy from.

You don’t have to be a tech-head. You don’t have to be necessarily smart. Try it. Crack open a beer, log on, and go fishing. Chance are in an hour’s time you’ll have a prodigious library that will keep your ears happy for a month.

—Paul Rapp

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