You're in the mood for cutting-edge rock or classic blues, but you don't have time to hit the mall and rummage through CDs. Does that mean you're destined to go tuneless tonight? Not at all. Just point your PC's browser toward one of the growing number of sites offering high-quality music downloads. Once you capture your selections, you can play them on your PC, make custom CDs for your home or car, or copy them onto a Walkman-style digital recording device that holds a couple of hours of music.
The Internet is reshaping the music biz. Already, artists and small independent labels are distributing thousands of songs directly to the public via online channels (table, page 140). Rock stars are offering teasers from concerts, in advance of album sales, while some mainstream performers have been on the Net for years. And slowly, big-time record companies are moving downloadable material onto the Web. In May, Sony Music said it plans to start selling singles over the Net at about $3.50 a pop. Universal Music expects to make digital downloads available this year.
The major record companies have two goals: to jump into electronic commerce and thwart music piracy. Consider the popular downloading format called MP3. It's a method for compressing, storing, and playing back near-CD-quality audio files off your computer. While a lot of music is distributed legally this way, pirates who have exploited the technology have created a massive underground network of bootlegged MP3 material. These files are found on Internet servers and sometimes swapped in chat rooms. Often the stuff isn't sold for profit but rather comes from students sharing tunes from their dorm rooms. So the music industry is developing technical ways to protect copyrighted works, and such heavyweights as AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, and RealNetworks are involved.
In the meantime, plenty of sites offer music you're allowed to download. Just check out www.mp3.com, www.goodnoise.com, www.atomicpop.com, and www.rioport.com, among others. Much of the material comes from lesser-known performers: At MP3.com, I recently downloaded a lovely aria, Enrique Granados' La Maja y el Ruisenor from the opera Goyescas, sung by Orange County (Calif.) classical vocalist Melissa Boettner. I also pulled down a track called Get Out My Life Woman by Bobby Nathan & Texas Soul with Uptown Horns, a remake of a 1960s Lee Dorsey classic.
TEASER TRACKS. You should see more free material from major artists, who may serve up a song to interest you in buying their albums. In a recent example, rocker Tom Petty offered a no-charge download of an unreleased song, Free Girl Now, for a few days in April at MP3.com. Also at MP3.com, you can download a free track called James Alley Blues from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Roger McGuinn. He hopes you'll then want to order the complete CD McGuinn's Folk Den, Vol. 1 from his own label for $7.99 at the site.
In another promotion, at Amazon.com and Atomic Pop you can snare a free MP3 single from rap artists Public Enemy. The track is called Do You Wanna Go Our Way??? and is part of the group's new album, There's a Poison Goin' On, which doesn't hit stores until June 21.
Once you find material, you must download software to play the tunes. MP3 files require programs such as Winamp, MusicMatch Jukebox, and Windows Media Player. AT&T's A2B Music and yet another standard, Liquid Audio, require their own players. Right now, Amazon is offering a pair of freebie songs from vocalist Sarah McLachlan in the Liquid Audio format. Alas, because of competing formats, you may need to download three or more audio players just to hear the music you want. Fortunately, it won't be long before a single player will handle most of the various audio formats. RealNetworks' RealJukebox, a "beta" version of which you can download for free, is compatible with the A2B, MP3, and RealAudio formats and will soon play Liquid Audio as well.
Downloading requires patience. It took me 45 minutes via 56K modem to pull down a five-minute tune, plus the software to hear the song. With a cable modem or high-speed DSL connection, I could have done it in a couple of minutes. If you're looking for bootleg material, you may be out of luck. When I tried finding music from the Beatles and Yo-Yo Ma, almost all the links that popped up at mp3.lycos.com didn't work.
RealJukebox, MusicMatch Jukebox, and others also serve as "CD rippers." That means you can put a compact disk into your CD-ROM drive and convert tracks into MP3 files.
While you can listen to songs off your hard drive, you may want to take the tune with you. One solution is to use a CD recorder or MiniDisc to make your own digital compilations. Another is to transfer songs to a portable gizmo such as Diamond Multimedia System's cigarette box-size Rio. I checked out the teal-blue limited edition Rio PMP300 ($250). It stores music on 64 MB of built-in "flash memory," with up to two hours of music at near-CD fidelity. An additional 32 MB card costs $100. To transfer MP3 files from your PC to the device, you load Rio software, connect the device to the parallel port on the PC, and click the songs you want to download. You can zap music at about 10 seconds per megabyte.
Soon, other portables for playing downloaded music, including versions for your car or palmtop computer, will become prevalent. Thomson Multimedia, maker of the RCA brand, says its digital player called LYRA, due out this year, can handle RealAudio, MP3, and other formats.
As the industry works through the various rights issues, digital downloading will become more common at major Web music retailers. CDNow hopes to sell downloads this fall. Pricing isn't set, but you might be able to buy a premium song from Column A at one price and a more obscure tune from Column B at another. Look also for sites to do a better job of reviewing lesser-known material. It will all bemusic to your ears.