The answer could be pretty much anywhere. Music may be the food of the gods, but with streaming services hitting the web big-time now, online music has become something of a movable feast. Fiddling around with downloads and MP3 files has fallen by the wayside. A new generation of sites, and new ways of listening (thanks to smartphones and tablets), allows us to be plugged-in more directly to our music, than ever before. But there’s a lot of different ways of making that connection, all serving to very different audiences. So have a look below at some of the options for getting the free music you want, and see which is for you.
Jamendo are long-time pros at serving up dazzling digital music for free, and it shows. The layout is well thought out, and visually appealing. And the depth of content is equally impressive – 55,000 free albums and counting. Each of the albums featured displays the cover artwork, shows which country the artist is from, and lays down some tags on the musical genre. The big-time artists may be missing – the site is more for up-and-coming music-makers – but Jamendo is most certainly big on getting you involved in the scene. The site is loaded with forums, review sections and social network links, and also features its own online radio-station. A good contender for those looking for a little bit of variety in their musical diet.
They may have ‘MP3′ in their title, but these days MP3.com are just as much about the streaming, as they are about the downloading. And unlike some other sites, MP3.com does include the cream of modern musical talent on their roster – so it’s not just struggling new artists you’ll find offering content without charge. MP3.com has the usual breakdown of its music library, by genre, but in general this site keeps things simple. And at least that’s putting as little between you, and your audio pleasure, as is possible.
The Free Music Archive has itself down as the new age source for ‘public free access’ to music – a cutting-edge radio station for the internet age. You can debate the merits of that at your leisure; but what you do get with FMA is a whole stack of excellent material, and from a very diverse range of artists. You’ll find both sampler tracks from the more middle-ranking musicians, and entire albums of material from those who are just starting out. The music here has been 100%-licensed as legal too, and is for free personal use, as well for use in remixing. And unlike some more bare-bone sites, with FMA you get a dash of background info on albums and artists. All in all, FMA stands up pretty well to its claims.
And talking of radio stations for the internet age, Last.fm is a site that can legitimately claim to be the world’s biggest web radio station. It hooks into any music that you typically stream through other channels, and helps you to build up your own personalized radio station. That also lets everyone see what great musical taste you have – and you can additionally stream big slabs of music from its vast 12 million tracked library. That includes music all the way from A-list musical performers, down to the newbies laying out their first tracks. But one drawback is that you can’t just pick and choose the tracks you want to listen to (not unless you pay). Instead, you have to go through the ‘artist radio’ – which plays songs by your chosen artist, plus others that Last.fm has flagged as being similar – all spliced together randomly. Nice enough, but possibly not the kind of musical streaming experience you were after.
If you’re wanting to go on a voyage of musical discovery, then The Sixty One may be for you. This site takes the basic idea of music-streaming sites, and turns it into an aural voyage, presenting new artists and tracks for you. If you like what you hear, you can delve further into that artist’s back catalog, otherwise you can just skip along to the next musical ‘gas stop’. It’s all laid out rather elegantly; you can also search for artists in the usual way, and make up your own playlists. Just don’t expect to find much mainstream on this site – it’s very much on the eclectic side.
Very much covering the mainstream, however, is Slacker – and in a similar vein to Last.fm. As with Last.fm, Slacker lets you build your own playlists, and will throw down a preformed radio station, based on your choice of band/artist. And it has a similarly broad-based music catalog to delve into. But the website doesn’t function as smoothly as Last.fm, and there’s not the depth of links out to other music-players or social networking sites. It’s also a little frustrating to be constantly reminded that you can get streamed music, on-demand – as long as you pay to upgrade to the premium account.
Grooveshark really is an excellent music streaming service, one which has managed to pull off an unlikely combo – letting users run free amongst a wide range of big name acts, and granting them the privilege of choosing which songs they’d like to play. To be sure, not every song and every album by that artist is covered, but there’s enough of a selection to keep all but the most avid of fans happy. Naturally, you can build your own playlists, switch to a similar artists page, or reach out to other users with similar musical tastes. The site can be a little clunky to work with, but overall Grooveshark probably hits the mark with what most music fans want from such a site.
Finally, from the good-but-expected, to the totally unexpected – Hitlantis. And this site really is like discovering a mysterious lost continent. The designers of Hitlantis have gotten rid of all the usual ways that users have of interacting with the music. Instead, they have come up with an alternative that both looks, and sounds, simply drop-dead gorgeous. The main page is a kaleidoscope of colored bubbles, each representing a different artist. They’re colored by genre (from Alternative to Electro to Indian), and each artist’s bubble is sized according to the number of on-site fans they have. It all makes for a mesmerizing way of exploring and discovering new talent (Hitlantis focuses on those bands that are just breaking out). It’s just a shame that the talent pool here is still rather under-populated, at the moment.