The Internet has made it easy to get a free download of just about any song you want. The problem, however, is that free music isn’t always legal music. If you’re the honest type and you like to pay for your tunes and support the artists, labels, and retailers who distribute them, then illegal downloading simply isn’t an option. We know that some of you out there have strict morals when it comes to your media consumption habits, so just for you we’ve put together this list of the best places to find free and completely legal downloads.
Before we get started, however, it should be noted that there are dozens of ways to listen to music freely and legally without downloading it onto a device. If you’re going to be listening in a place with an internet connection, we suggest checking out some of the top-notch streaming services out there that offer almost every song you’ll ever want. In most situations, downloading songs and storing them locally just isn’t necessary anymore. Really, the only situation where downloading is necessary is if you often listen to music in places where Internet connections are slow, spotty, or nonexistent.
Furthermore, most free and legal music you come across isn’t likely to be from familiar mainstream artists – if you’re looking for legal music downloads, don’t expect to get all the hottest tracks from your favorite bands. If you look in the right places, you’ll probably find a few hit songs from a couple big names, but most of the music you’ll find in the sites listed below are from independent artists that haven’t hit it big yet. That’s not to say it’s not good music, it’s just not popular music.
So, if you absolutely must download your music, you want to do so without paying a dime or breaking any laws, and you don’t mind if a lot of popular favorites are missing, read on.
Updated on 12-6-2013 by Emily Schiola: This article has been updated since it was originally published to reflect service changes and additions.
Back in 2009, a New Jersey-based independent community radio station called WFMU embarked on a project to make contemporary music of all genres available to the public and the Free Music Archive was born. Since it’s inception, WFMU has partnered with dozens of other curators, and the site has become a veritable treasure trove of free content. The site combines two different approaches to posting tracks. First, it indexes free music posted by all of its partner curators, and second, it allows users to post their own music directly to the site’s archives. This synthesis of sources gives them a mind-bogglingly large library of tracks that you could literally spend months browsing through.
Noisetrade is part free music site, part artist promotion platform. You can get tracks and albums from independent artists if you supply them with your e-mail address. So basically, if you allow them to send you promotional stuff in the form of e-mail, they’ll give you free tunes. The site also politely asks you to spread the word about the artists you like by posting about them on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The UI is clean, simple, and visual, which makes the site a joy to browse through.
You probably know Last.fm as a titan of free streaming internet radio, but did you know it’s got a pretty decent selection of free downloads as well? Just scroll down to the bottom of the page, and in the bottom right corner you’ll see a blue link that reads “free downloads”. Click it, and you’ll be met with pages and pages of MP3′s that you can filter by genre. It’s hard to get a solid count on how many tracks the site has, but each genre seems to have more than 25 pages containing ten tracks each, so it’s a pretty sizable collection. The best part is that if you’ve used Last.fm before, the site has a good idea of what type of music you like, and will suggest MP3′s based on your listening habits.
It should come as no surprise that the WalMart of the Internet has a massive bargain bin of free MP3 downloads. At time of writing, Amazon has exactly 56,011 free tunes available, and that number will probably get bigger over time. The nice thing about Amazon’s list of freebies is that you can easily browse it by genre, and it even tells you how many free tracks there are within each category. The only tricky part is navigating to the right section of the site. To get to all the free goodies, you can either click here, or go to MP3 Music > Music by Price > Songs > Free.
First established in 1997, MP3.com is probably the oldest site on this list. Despite its veteran status, the site has had some ups and downs in the past, and its library isn’t nearly as big as you’d expect it to be after 15 years. Regardless, when compared to most other sites on the web, it’s still got a great collection. In addition to their broad selection of high-bitrate MP3′s, the site posts a new free track every day, and features a different album every week. They also seem to have a good number of songs that you can’t find anywhere else, so it’s definitely worth a look.
With nearly 400,000 tracks from over 40,000 artists, Jamendo is easily one of the biggest repositories of free music on the web. You won’t find all of your favorite artists here, but the site’s UI makes it great for browsing and finding talented new musicians. Instead of browsing by genre, you peruse tracks by popularity, most downloaded, most played, or by latest release. Popularity is based on user ratings, so despite the massive amount of tracks on the site, you don’t have to spend a lot of time searching before you find stuff that pleases your ears.
If you’re looking to download free songs from your favorite artists, try finding them on Facebook. More often than not, artists will give you access to a few freebies just for liking their page. It’s different for each artist, but you’d be surprised how many sport free download links on their accounts. The only problem is that after you “Like” a musician’s page, everything they post will show up in your news feed — which might be off-putting to some users. To remedy this and keep your feed from being inundated with posts about gigs you can’t attend, just adjust your settings to hide these types of posts.
Not every song posted on Soundcloud is free, and not all the free ones are technically legal — so what makes it a good site for legal free music? Well, ever since the beginning, Soundcloud has gone out of their way to verify the accounts of popular musicians to make sure they’re authentic. If an artist has a green dot on their profile, you can be sure that it’s really them who’s posting tracks, and not somebody who posted the track illegally. That being said, there are also a lot of accounts that are legitimate, but aren’t verified. In these cases you’ll just have to make a judgment call. If they’ve got legitimate links to their Twitter and Facebook pages, you can usually be pretty sure it’s them.
You can surf Soundcloud by artist, genre, popularity, or latest postings; and you’ll be surprised at how many free tracks are out there. Most big-name mainstream artists will have a few freebies on their pages, and there are millions of independent artists who post all of their tunes for free. There’s also a section of the site dedicated to tracks released under Creative Commons licenses — which means you’re free to download, remix, or tweak them as much as you like.
We’re still not 100% sure all the songs on this site are technically legal, but their DMCA policy looks solid, so we decided to include it. SoundOwl bills itself as a platform for musicians, labels, and blogs to distribute their music, and the site makes it explicitly clear that users are only allowed share tracks that they themselves have created or have the rights to distribute. In the case of music blogs, they can only share music that has been provided to them by the record label or artist with the express intent making a free download available for promotional purposes. To ensure that users don’t upload tunes that aren’t theirs, they’ve partnered with Copyseeker to catch violators and remove copyrighted material.
In terms of design, the SoundOwl’s UI is super minimalist and clean. Just type in the name of an artist or song you like and the service quickly gives you a list of tracks fitting your search terms. You can also browse by category or genre, or just hit shuffle for a random selection of tunes. All tracks can be previewed before you download them, and the site provides buttons for sharing on Facebook, Twitter, or saving tracks as ringtones for your phone.
The UI makes it hard to get a count on how many songs they have, but SoundOwl admins tell us they’ve currently got somewhere around 300,000 tracks. Most of them are from independent musicians, but they’ve also got a pretty sizable collection of popular tunes from big-name artists.
MadeLoud focuses primarily on music from indie artists that is directly uploaded by the artist. It’s all completely free and is a great way for artists and fans to connect, because fans are able to comment directly about songs. This isn’t the place to find Taylor Swift, but it is a great way to discover new and sometimes local music. As an artist, it is an easy way to get some music on the internet other than Soundcloud and Facebook. Songs can be downloaded directly or arranged into playlists on the site itself and streamed straight from the internet. There is also an option to preview 45 seconds of a song before wasting precious time downloading it. Since the artists do the uploading, everything on this site is completely above board.
After winning a law suit, iMesh has become the first person-to-person file sharing site to be approved by the RIAA. It does require the user to download software from the site to access its music, which seems a little excessive if you’re looking to download music. Per the deal iMesh struck with the RIAA, they can only house 15 million songs and videos at a time, but that means they have some bigger performers like Nikki Minaj and Eminem. There are plenty of smaller artists that upload their music directly, so it makes for better variety, and as legal as they come.
This list of the best online music sites is by no means complete, so we invite you to share your favorites with us in the comments!