Downloading music from the Internet
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Date: 28 July, 2004



'MP3s can be a great way for unsigned bands to get their music 'out there', and many studios or bands provide MP3 tracks to provide a taster for prospective fans.'

There are a host of websites on the Internet that provide access to music, from files to download to streaming music to listen to online, and from early classical to music written the day before yesterday. It's a way to find new styles to listen to, and revisit old favourites.

To start, a quick jargon guide:

'Download and play' - files that are saved to your computer and played from there (WAV, MP3)

MP3 - Technically MPEG Audio Layer-3, this technology compresses audio files down to a fairly small size but maintains audio quality (usually 'download and play')

MP4 - combines video and audio

Ripping - extracting sound files from a CD

Streaming audio - files that you listen to online (often used by Internet radio stations)

WAV - Wave file, a Microsoft format, used as a standard format - includes uncompressed audio data and other information - these can be converted to MP3s using an encoder

Where to find music

Music is most often downloaded as MP3 files, and these may be free or paid for. Typing 'MP3 download' into Google UK gets over a million hits. This is all rather daunting, so to make things a bit easier,, a rather useful website telling you everything about everything, can help you to find MP3 files. It has sections specific to different types of music, including Christian music. Apple's iTunes, which announced its 50 millionth song download in March 2004, has hundreds of thousands of songs to be downloaded.

How to listen to music

To listen to music on a computer, you'll need a sound card (most computers bought in the last few years will have one of these) and an extra bit of free software to hear them. Different types of files need different software, and the website where you find the clips will often tell you which one you need - the most common are RealPlayer, QuickTime and Windows Media Player.

You can also listen to downloaded music on the move with a portable digital audio player. These can play MP3, MP3 Variable Bit Rate (VBR), WAV and AAC format (Mac-only). These range from basic MP3 players at around £40, to iPods at around £400. Cool, very cool, but expensive. Some mobile phones include MP3 players, and there are even in-car players.

Copyright issues

And so, a bit of history. Downloading music all got a bit controversial a few years ago, when 19-year-old Shawn Fanning created Napster in 1999, software that allowed users to swap music freely across the internet. Rather than the files all being stored in a central area, these were stored on individuals' hard drives. This contravened copyright laws in a BIIIIIG way, and involved Napster being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). This however is a whole article in its own right, and the fabulous HowStuffWorks site talks about it in much more depth than I can.

And this leads quite neatly onto the serious bit (contrived links like that show I listen to too much Radio 4). Downloading music from the Internet, or from CDs, is a serious legal issue. Music copyright is important - copyright protects the livelihood of musicians, and downloading music illegitimately, whether it's from websites or borrowed CDs, is, to quote my musician partner, "like taking half of someone's pay packet - it's not nice and don't do it". For more on musical copyright, see the Musician's Union website.

MP3s can be a great way for unsigned bands to get their music 'out there', and many studios or bands provide MP3 samples of tracks or indeed entire tracks to provide a taster for prospective fans. So check carefully what you are downloading, remember that you are responsible for what is on your hard drive or in your MP3 player, and get out there and listen to old and new bands and artists.

And finally, as a kind of PS, and really more just to amuse me, music isn't the only sound you can download from the web. There are some very silly sound effects available, from cats to whales and creaky doors and rubbish bins to toilet flushes at Webplaces, and music, comedy, sound effects and samples from cartoons at FreeAudioClips. And I can't finish an article on sound on the Internet without plugs for my three favourite spoken word radio sites, BBC7, Radio 4, and Oneword.