I love music. Passionately, sometimes obsessively. I also love expanding my music collection, but being a Thriftie, I don't love paying for that collection. However, I have scruples and principles, and by that I don't mean Russian money and school disciplinarians, I mean the type of conscience that glowers at me resentfully if I even think about using KaZaa or ripping a library CD. So, since acquiring my MP3s legally is a priority, and I don't really enjoy lining the coffers of iTunes more than I have to, I've accumulated rather a stockpile of interesting options for finding and/or acquiring legal music for free or cheap. Here are the top five.
1. eMusic.com. This site is a subscription service that sells you a monthly chunk of downloads for far cheaper than you can get elsewhere -- I've been an avid user for a couple of years now. You may be thinking, What?? Advocating an automatic monthly expenditure is *not* appropriate behavior for a Thriftie... But wait! Don't lose faith in me so quickly. Even if you not interested in the actual subscription service, you can still receive 25 downloads for free just for trying it. And really, if you're a music junkie like me, this is probably an expense you can justify to yourself, based on an amazing selection (unless you're looking for the really huge labels that is...) and what ends up being very affordable downloads. This is kind of like a virtual, musical Costco where you can buy Indie/oldies/cool music in bulk. You can find everything from Frank Sinatra to Dar Williams to M. Ward here, so you shouldn't have trouble discovering something you like. Helpful hints for eMusic: Your download "allowance" doesn't roll-over by month, so create a calender reminder for yourself somewhere so you don't lose any on the 31st. If you sign up and later your pocketbook wants a break, you can put your account on hold for up to three months without having to actually cancel anything. The site also offers a good number of free downloads organized by genre, so be sure to take advantage of those to find new music, and use eMusic's refer-a-friend service to score even more free MP3s.
2. Free-and-legal MP3 blogs such as Fingertips, Muruch, and 3hive. These blogs provide a wealth of free MP3s each week, each accompanied by an insightful, engaging review of the song and artist. Helpful hint for music blogs: If possible, take advantage of streaming music options to listen to the full range of what's available while minimizing the clicking involved. Search 3hive and Muruch by artist if you're looking for somebody in particular, or check out Fingertips' alphabetical master artist list. I dare you to look up an artist there and not get sucked into browsing! Fingertips also has great "Top 10" that highlight the most popular recent downloads. Finally, be sure to note that these MP3 postings frequently have a shelf-life (since they're usually made available for promotional purposes), so don't procrastinate on downloading any interesting ones. If you don't know where to start, check out Fingertips for Sam Philips and TV on the Radio, and then Muruch for Caroline Weeks. You'll never look back.
3. Label and artist websites. This one takes more research, but can be a real goldmine... Labels like Barsuk and Asthmatic Kitty often post multiple MP3s for each of their bands. You can get everything from old Death Cab, to Mates of State, to Sufjan Stevens and friends here. Artists' websites frequently do the same -- Josh Ritter being probably the best example. So. Much. Music. I'm pretty sure they'll be playing Josh and Sufjan in heaven, so get a head's start now. They're just that good.
4. Weekly free downloads on iTunes and Amazon This one is more obvious, but Amazon recently had a track from the new banjo album from Steve Martin (yes, the father of the bride himself), and not too long ago iTunes highlighted a great download from Nigerian artist Asa, so there are definitely winners here if you keep your eyes open. Helpful hints on iTunes: Don't forget that iTunes has a total of three free downloads per week -- the one highlighted predominately, then a "Discovery download" (which was where I found Asa), and a"Cancion de la Semana" as well. Obviously the last one is in Spanish, but even if you don't speak the language, you can enjoy the rhythm! Helpful hints for Amazon: Sign up for their MP3 email alerts here via the Amazon Delivers link... or, to cut down on inbox clutter, follow them on twitter for updates on the best deals. I found an immensely discounted Weepies album this way, so it can make a great addition to your twitter-life...
5. Streaming sources, such as Pandora, Last FM, and Relevant TV. Pandora is probably the most accessible online music player, creating "stations" based on your favorite artists and groups, and allowing you to customize further from there depending on your likes and dislikes. Last FM is another solid option, with a social networking component that can allow you to connect with friends and other listeners with similar tastes in music. Relevant TV is the streaming music video channel that first introduced me to Interpol and Regina Spektor, and currently is highlighting Au Revoir Simone and Conor Oberst (though selections change continually).
I could go on to discuss my favorite music podcasts as well, but I think that might be enough for now. I'll end with pointing you on your way to a hilarious preschooler's interpretation of cover art. Have fun downloading -- let the flood of music begin! Keep me posted on any jewels you find... and if you have sources of free-and-legal music that I haven't stumbled across yet, let me in on those too!
Note: Please consider any artist I mention here as highly, highly recommended.
Edit: At the end of July I expanded this list into the top 10 sources of free-and-legal downloads, in a guest post over at It's Frugal Being Green. Check out the new additions, and then come back by to tell me what you think!