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What to Look for in a Music Download Site

Mar 20, 2008
Since the mid-1990s brought the beginning of legal battles surrounding digital music, the subject of downloading music has been a tricky one. It's hard to know what is legal and what isn't, and the potential risks associated with downloading anything can sometimes make people hesitate to try new sites for music downloads.

The threat of viruses and spyware would be enough to make anyone wary. Add to that the fact the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been extremely aggressive in its pursuit of illegal downloads, and you have some compelling reasons to be nervous about downloading music.

As long as you take precautions to protect yourself from malicious software and from potential litigation, though, downloading music is the best way to get new songs for your computer or MP3 player. You can buy individual songs rather than entire albums, and you don't have to deal with having a house full of CD cases. Digital; music is most definitely the wave of the future, so it's worth finding out how to locate safe and legal music downloads.

When you are looking for a site to download music from, your first concern should be making sure that it is legal. Some companies outside of the US claim to be exempt from US music distribution laws and therefore state that they have a right to offer music for download without a license to do so. The legality of these sites highly questionable. If you find yourself at a site which is offering songs at what seems like an unusually low price, there is probably a good reason for that: they are doing it illegally.

There are five basic factors that you should look at after legality: price, selection, format, digital rights management (DRM), and extras. The first two, price and selection, are very similar between the big download sites. The infamous-but-reformed Napster offers roughly the same amount of tracks as Apple's iTunes, and the per-track price for both sites is 99 cents. However, Napster also offers an unlimited monthly plan that allows you to pay one price to download unlimited songs per month - something that iTunes has yet to explore. A lot of enthusiasts argue that this makes Napster a better value.

Selection is something that's extremely important to many of us - more important, even, than price. When you want a particular album or you need to check out a new band, you don't want to see that your preferred site for music downloads doesn't carry that artist. Of course, you have to expect that it will happen sometimes - but if you can't find any of your favorite music on a particular site, it's time to move on.

If you plan to use your music downloads on a portable music player, it is essential to know what format is offered by the site that you choose and whether it is compatible with your portable player. Some sites or services offer only a proprietary format that can only be used with their software. This is very limiting and can frustratingly lock you into using only one type of musical device forever because your entire music library is in that format.

DRM is an issue that most of the internet community divided. This is a way for music distributors to control what happens to the music that you download. If you want to download music and then use it to burn CDs, you will need to make sure that the DRM allowances for that particular music download site will let you burn CDs of downloaded tracks. Some sites allow a maximum number of times you can burn a song or playlist, some require additional payment, and some will not allow you to burn CDs from downloaded songs at all.

Finally, the extras that you get with your music downloads might be enough to tip the scales one way or the other for you if you are deciding between two sites. Some music download services will include additional files with the download of albums - but not the malicious kind of additional files. These files are like the liner notes that come in CDs. This type of additional offering is great for those who don't want to miss out on the great cover art and notes that bands include with their CDs.

Armed with this information, you should be able to make an informed decision about which site is best for you when you're looking for legal music downloads. If you are having trouble making a choice between several contenders, there are plenty of site reviews online that will give you all of the information you need about the music download sites you're interested in. When in doubt, stick to a well-known service to avoid running into problems with spyware, viruses, and questionable legality.
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