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How to Choose the Right US Music Download Website

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No doubt you’re here because you love music. Who doesn't? It’s one of those things that everyone has an opinion on. It’s a great talking point and, more than anything else, provides a soundtrack to life, whether it’s just sitting in the office, relaxing at home or walking through the park. Music is everywhere and now that it’s digital you can easily take it everywhere with you.

The great thing about downloading music is that you don’t need to haul masses and masses of CDs or LPs over your shoulder, 1000 albums can fit in your pocket! But how do you decide what to listen to and how much to pay? This guide will help you to consider your music needs and which music download sites might be best for you. There are a lot of music download sites out there, some very well known and others hidden in the mists of the internet.

We’ve scoured through them and pulled out those which we think offer the best value for money, but also the best features which will make your music downloads more personal. It might be that you only want specific songs at the highest quality and don’t mind paying. Maybe you want to expand your music knowledge by reading articles, listening to samples and taking on recommendations. Read on and discover the key things to think about when you’re making any music download decisions...


Keeping it legal

The music industry has undergone a revolution over the past ten years. A couple of college students catalyzed the revolution back in 1999 (when the number of internet users in the USA was less than half of what it is today). Their innovative creation, called Napster, made it easy for anyone to freely download music over the internet and share it with their peers. Although this free-for-all approach was in keeping with the egalitarian spirit upon which the internet was founded, the music industry was up in arms over its lost revenues.

Two years after its inception, Napster was shut down by court order for copyright violations. However, many people remained determined to download and share music online, regardless of the legal implications, so it was not long before a myriad of other peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs emerged. These newer P2P file sharing sites had a decentralized structure (unlike the central servers which Napster had used) which made these new sites much harder to control and police.

After a few years, the music industry realized that the internet could be used as a medium through which they could legitimately sell music as well as a medium through which their music could be illegally shared via peer-to-peer programs. Digital Rights Management (DRM) was one of they key things that made it possible for the music industry to adopt this new approach. The technology was designed to prevent you from freely copying and burning songs.

Each DRM protected song required a license which was usually automatically downloaded for you. Without the license, the track would not play and would therefore be of no use. As you might expect, some people eventually found ways to get around the DRM technology, so it wasn't a perfect solution. Nevertheless, with the advent of DRM technology, many totally legitimate music download & subscription services were able to emerge and corner a share of the market.

Fast forward 10 years and a 'born again' Napster (rebranded under new management) established itself as a fully-featured, totally legitimate, music download service with millions of followers all over the world. This new incarnation of Napster began to sell music on behalf of the artists who created it, thereby ensuring that those artists receive financial rewards for their creative work. In 2012, Napster merged with its rival, Rhapsody. At the time of writing, the Napster brand features in the UK while the Rhapsody brand features in the USA.

DRM-free downloads are now widely available from totally legitimate music download and subscription sites (such as iTunes, 7digital and MP3Fiesta). The growth of legal downloads has coincided with rival (peer-2-peer) file-sharing sites getting a bad reputation for exposing users to malware, and leaving users at risk of being disconnected by internet service providers due to copyright violations.

The risk of being disconnected by an ISP depends on where you live, as copyright laws vary from country to country, but why take a chance when there are affordable alternatives. So if you're a muisic lover that is keen to support your favourite artists while at the same time protecting yourself from attack, check out our detailed reviews of the best legal music download sites on the web.


Important Features To Look For in a Music Download Website

  • Type of Service: The websites we have reviewed are all 100% legal. They tend to offer two types of service:
    1. Subscription Service: where you pay a fixed monthly fee for access to a site's whole music library. You don't actually own the tracks you download, you can think of it more as leasing them for the duration that you are paying your subscription fee.
    2. Download Service: where you pay per download. Tracks are either stored in an electronic shopping basket and paid for in a bundle or else paid for individually as you select them.
  • Size of database: in general, the larger the database the more likely you are to find your favorite songs. Anything over 7 million songs should be more than enough to satisfy even the most eclectic tastes. The number of tracks available is important because there’s no point in signing up to a site and paying out your hard earned dollars for a subscription when the site doesn’t really offer the sort of music you’re interested in. Take a look at several sites, have a genre or a band in mind that you’re interested in and see what the site has to offer. Most music download sites have a large catalogue available to you so sometimes it’s worth trying to find something a bit more obscure. Some sites have a much smaller catalogue but they have a greater focus on a particular genre. If you’re into Japanese music for example, you might not want to download from the bigger, more established sites. Have a peek at their genre lists, how many tracks are in each genre and whether those songs appeal to you.
  • Sound Quality: The bitrate (usually measured in kilobits per second and written as either Kbps or kbps) measures how much digital information gets transmitted every second and encoded (e.g. MP3 format, AAC format). A higher bitrate results in less information being lost during the encoding process but it also means a larger file size for storing. A 192 kbps (kilobit per second) song will be approximately radio quality. A 256 kbps song is a higher quality. Some sites offer 320 kbps, which is top quality (though some people claim that you can’t really hear the difference between 256 kbps and 320 kbps). Generally 256 kbps is fine for most people and you may only notice a difference if you have top notch equipment. Tracks with lower kbps take up less storage space on your computer or portable music device, although of course storage space is no longer such a serious concern for most people, as modern devices can provide vast amounts of storage space.
  • Features: if you just want to download songs for your computer then extra features might not matter a great deal. However a lot of sites offer a variety of other services such as music videos, music articles, interviews and reward schemes. If you’re thinking of listening to your music on devices other than your computer then it’s also worth taking into account whether this is allowed with the files you pay for on each site. A few sites offer very interesting social features such as sharing your musical tastes on Facebook or Twitter, or even tell you about music events in your local area. Some can build a sense of community where you can get involved in online discussions on your favourite artists or arrange to meet friends at gigs.
  • Searching: Search functions might not seem important to begin with but they are. When you first start downloading you’ll probably search for bands whose music you already have. But that’s not making the most of music downloading. A good music download will make recommendations based on what you’ve been listening to, to help develop and expand your personal catalogue. As your selection of music increases you might not be all that sure which music to download or how to find it; a decent search function will involve options to filter your searches by genre, perhaps even the date they were made or their popularity. Filters will prevent your searches from being too general and throwing up a mass of results which you don’t really have an interest in. Try performing a few searches and browsing through the genres and play lists that are available on each site.
  • Free trials: it's important to choose a site that offers you a free trial (as this will enable you to get a feel for the site's features before handing over any money) and also the facility to listen to 30 second previews of songs (as this will help you decide if it's worth investing in).
  • Perks: some sites put a lot of thought and effort into enhancing your user-experience by offering free portable players, downloadable software, great discounts with gift vouchers or offer codes, reduced rates for those in the military, etc. So keep an eye out for these kinds of perks when you're deciding which site is right for you.
  • Accessibility: it's a good idea to choose a site that lets you access their music library from any computer, not just your home computer. Because there will be times when you want to access the library while visiting friends and family.
  • Mobile downloads: If you have a funky new mobile/cell/smart-phone with lots of storage space and MP3 or AAC features, then you'll probably want a music download website that lets you download songs to your smart-phone. The download charges are simply added to your phone bill.
  • Facility to create and share playlists: most of the time, we're only blown away by a few songs on a given album, so we create playlists, comprising fantastic songs from lots of different albums. The facility to share those playlists with your friends is something you should be sure to look for in a music download site. Some sites also offer automatic mixture features which auto-generates playlists based on what's in your library. Ideal for the lazy-bones among you!
  • Web browser-oriented: some sites not only let you buy tracks through your web browser, but also let you stream music library through your web browser.
  • Compatibility with portable players: some sites allow you to copy songs to a wide variety of portable players not including the iPod; while the iTunes site only allows you to copy songs to its Apple products like the iPod or iPhone. So keep this in mind before you make a final decision about which site to go with.
  • TV / Movie Download Option: sites like iTunes also let you buy TV shows from all of the major networks as well as full length movies (640 x 480 resolution) to watch on your portable player. So if you're an avid Apple user, then iTunes may suit you better than most others.
  • Value for money: This is a careful balance that really depends on how much music you think you want to download. If you are just after a specific song or two then you might want to go for a site that lets you buy just one song. If you think that you may want 10 or 20 then a music download site which offers a credit system may be what you need. With these credit sites you often buy a bundle of credit (say $10) and then buy songs at variable rates. This is often cheaper than buying individual songs from non-credit sites. There are also sites where you subscribe for a period of time and are allowed to download or stream as much music as you like for that fee. If you’re interested in listening to as much music as possible then these are good options, though of course you’ll need to pay the subscription fee for a month or more.
  • Technical support: Support is particularly important if you want to use downloading software and then to play your music on multiple devices. A good site will offer a substantial but easy-to-navigate FAQ, as well as a phone line and email option.


The Bottom Line

There are lots of great music download and subscription services to choose from these days. All of the websites featured on No1Reviews.com are 100% legal and legitimate (peer-to-peer file sharing sites are excluded). So venture forward, brave music-fan and delve into the world of music download websites, where almost anything you’ve ever heard can be yours in minutes! Good luck.