One of the nice things about the internet is that it’s just as easy (if not easier) to listen to music online for free. Quite frankly, if you have an internet connection, there is absolutely no excuse for paying for music. The opportunities to stream literally any band are nearly limitless.
Downloading music for offline listening is another matter, but there’s still a massive amount of streaming music available. Here are a couple of places where the music is free, legal, and easy to access.
Available in the United States
One of the oddities of these massive online music services is their availability. Copyright law is a strange and fickle beast. What may be legal in one country might not be in another. A service might have the rights to distribute music within one country but not another. This leaves the average user in somewhat of a predicament. How are they supposed to differentiate between what is and isn’t available to them? That’s why this article is divided by availability – in US and internationally. For users within the United States, pay attention. This section’s for you.
By far one of the coolest sources of free music is Spotify. Imagine iTunes, but where every song is free. That’s Spotify. The music streaming service that proved so popular overseas has finally come to America, and it is excellent. The service excels at being smooth and easy to use. Queues, starring, internet radio, and even access to your iTunes library makes Spotify an easy choice and my personal favorite music player.
I don’t think I can sing Spotify’s praises enough. Within the time I’ve used it, I have already discovered three amazing new bands I didn’t know before. Being able to listen to their entire collection for free is awesome. Plus, the audio quality is superb. The difference between the quality of Spotify songs and iTunes downloads is zero. There are a couple downsides, though. The creators can’t make something this cool for free, so Spotify is littered with advertising. Pop ups, sidebars, and ads between songs are all the price of using Spotify for free. You can subscribe to the service for no ads and unlimited offline downloads, but the free version works just as well. The only other irritant was song limits. Certain songs or albums aren’t available in the United States, and of course Spotify doesn’t have iTunes exclusive songs. This isn’t a huge deal, but one of my absolute favorite Gaslight Anthem songs is an iTunes exclusive and I missed listening to it.
Still, Spotify is my favorite online music service. Highly recommended.
Here are a few articles related to Spotify to help you familiarize yourself with the service
Pandora isn’t the first internet radio station, but it is the most famous. It’s kind of the gold standard in internet radio, the thing everyone else gets compared to.
It’s most impressive in its universality. Pandora is on iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Windows, Mac, and even new 2011 BMW models. Pandora is similar to Netflix in that you can use it on just about any device imaginable. I do have a complaint about Pandora, though. Its job is to feed you music similar to what you already listen to. That’s not a bad thing, but it also means that your musical tastes can’t grow or change. If all you do is pick classical stations on Pandora, all you’ll ever hear is classical. That and the skip limit irritate me. Still, Pandora is a solid service. There is a paid version, but I wouldn’t bother unless you really like the service. Like Spotify, Pandora is totally usable in its free form.
Google Music (Beta) is another service which is available only in the US. To know more about it read our coverage of the service - Google Music Beta is the Ultimate Music Synchronization Solution. You can also read about how Google is trying to promote this service by giving away free music - Google’s Magnifier Music Discovery Service Gives Away Free Music Daily.
These music sources have paid the copyright monster his appropriate homage and earned the mysterious right of broadcasting without borders. If you are trying to listen from outside the United States (you know… 95% of the world’s population), these stations are available and ready for your use.
Surprising, no? When most people think of YouTube, they (correctly) picture silly cat videos and Rebecca Black. However, YouTube is not just for videos. I’m not sure how the legality of this arrangement works, but YouTube is allowed to post entire songs online that you can stream for free. There are a couple different music channels on YouTube. First are the official videos. These come from services like Vevo or the artist’s record label and are typically music videos of the band’s biggest hits. For example, if you search for The Black Keys, the first result is the music video for “Tighten Up.” The official sources are a good source for the popular songs from a band, and the audio quality is usually decent.
The unofficial sources, on the other hand, aren’t quite as good. If you look past the first couple results for a band or search for one of their more obscure songs, you’ll probably see the “album art” version. These versions don’t have any video, just a stock photo of the cover of the song’s album. The audio quality for album art songs is decidedly more variable. There’s a noticeable drop in quality among certain songs. YouTube is well aware of its burgeoning music community and is doing its best to encourage it. If you look at the “Related Videos” column next to any song on YouTube, there will probably be a Playlist option. Basically, someone working for YouTube took the time to string together a bunch of songs from one specific band and a few similar artists into one long playlist. YouTube playlists are vaguely similar to Pandora in concept. Where YouTube differs is in its Artist pages. These are a bit difficult to find (Google them), but they have links to every song the band’s ever made, listed out for you nicely. Being able to pick specific songs is nice.
All in all, if you don’t mind the occasional bad quality song, YouTube is probably the easiest source of free music available. Definitely recommended for ease of use and completeness.
Despite the silly name, GrooveShark is a music streaming service that should be taken seriously. It’s basically Spotify within a browser window. You pick the music and it streams over the internet to you, anywhere in the world. I don’t use that Spotify comparison lightly. GrooveShark impresses with its smooth interface and beautiful graphics. When you use it, picking songs feels easy and effortless. That’s probably the single overriding philosophy behind GrooveShark: make everything easy.
Want to set up a playlist to provide a soundtrack to your web browsing? No problem. GS lets you queue songs up for playing in the smoothest, easiest format I’ve ever seen. The songs are visually represented as rectangles. Queuing songs is as easy as drag and drop. The music itself is superb. Going back to the Spotify comparison, GrooveShark presents stellar audio quality that sounds just like the real thing. The library also matches Spotify’s completeness. Hell, GS even managed to snag a couple iTunes exclusive songs. I’m not sure how that works, but either way it’s pretty cool. Spotify is still my favorite source for free music, but GrooveShark is its equal. The audio quality, free listening (seriously, you don’t even need an account), and smooth interface make it easily the best choice for international listeners. If you’re looking on the US and Europe with jealousy at Spotify, be jealous no more. GrooveShark is just as good.
You can read about downloading music from Grooveshark using GrooveDown and Check out WinGrooves, which is the is the best desktop player for Grooveshark.
OK… this is a weird one. Unlike every other music service on this list, Jamendo shuns all popular and/or known music. Instead, it offers a sizeable library of unknown artists. I didn’t recognize a single name anywhere on Jamendo. The cool part is that because these bands are so obscure, they’re willing to let you download their music for free. Streaming and downloading everything on Jamendo is perfectly legal as the artists upload their music under the Creative Commons license. So not only can you download it for free, it’s also cool to use it in your own work. They even have support for downloading their music via torrents, something that every other music service is trying to avoid. Jamendo was really weird, but kind of cool in its own way. In the time I spent on their site, I discovered several new bands who all seemed fairly talented. If you enjoy digging to find new bands to dig, Jamendo is the best choice available.
This was probably the coolest music service I found… it’s definitely the most innovative. Instead of searching for a specific artist or genre, you select your mood from a scaled chart. Musicovery then plays you songs based on how you feel. It’s really bizarre, but I liked it a lot. The mood matching is dead on. Pick a mood that’s between quiet and serious and you get Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie. Pick happy and energetic and you get Blink-182. It’s accurate, if nothing else. The only problem I encountered with Musicovery is its variability. Since you don’t have control over the artist, you get some weird selections. Within one playthrough I heard Nat King Cole, the Bee Gees, and “Crazy Frog.” Those are not my favorite bands in the world, to say the least. Where internet radio stations like Pandora err by giving you too much of the same, Musicovery errs by giving too much variety. You’re bound to encounter something distasteful with Musicovery. That and a laggy interface are my two qualms about the service. If nothing else, check out Musicovery because you’re not likely to see something that cool anywhere else. Points for originiality, Musicovery.
Unfortunately, Deezer is not available in the United States so I was unable to review it. However, it appears to be a similar to Spotify if their official website is anything to go by. If you’re in Europe, give Deezer a shot and let us know how it went in the comments.
One of the latest and greatest innovations in the music business, internet radio is an easy way to discover new bands that you’re statistically likely to like. The idea itself is brilliant. Search for an artist and internet radio will play songs by them, along with songs by bands similar to the original band. If you search for Arcade Fire, internet radio plays them, Band of Horses, and The Shins. It’s a great way to discover bands similar to what you already prefer.
This is a bit of an odd service in comparison to Pandora. Last.fm is a step forward in some ways and a step backward in others. At its core, it’s the same thing as Pandora. Input an artist, song, or genre and Last.fm will play you music from that artist and ones just like him. The service differentiates itself from Pandora by being a bit classier. Last.fm doesn’t sink to the level of punitive skip limits like its more famous older brother. Listening to internet radio is (mostly) ad-free and unencumbered. On the other hand, Last.fm disappoints in its limitations on free users. Pandora has a free app for almost every device ever made. Last, on the other hand, doesn’t let you listen on a mobile device without a premium account. I understand that they’ve got to make money, but no mobile listening still kind of sucks. My father is a big Pandora fan precisely because he can take it with him on car trips. Still, if you’re listening on PC then Last.fm is an excellent choice for internet radio. No skip limits, minimal commercials, and a classy user interface make Last worth the visit. Available for free in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany. Users in other countries can enjoy a limited trial only. But with a paid subscription of just $3 per month – Last.fm is a service you can easily afford, especially since they have almost an unlimited choice of music. But there is a way around this. Playing music from Last.fm whether you are in the US or outside is quite easy if you use the Last.fm Chrome Music Player. There are no restrictions on the number of songs or the time for which you can listen to music. And since it’s Last.fm you almost have an infinite choice of songs to listen to.
Slacker is yet another internet radio service. The basic service is the same as usual: input an artist, song, or genre and it will play similar music. However, Slacker has a couple standout qualities that help elevate it above being just another Pandora clone. For one thing, availability. Slacker is much more generous in that it’s available overseas and not just the United States. It also has an incredibly cool mobile app. Slacker Mobile (iOS and Android) lets you cache internet radio stations for offline listening. Not only is that incredibly cool, it’s a godsend for trips where you might be out of range of 3G (airplane, boat, Wisconsin). The free version of Slacker is adorned with the usual detritus of a free music service: the occasional ad will interrupt your listening and banner ads are everywhere. The ever-dastardly skip limit returns in Slacker as well. Still, Slacker is probably my favorite internet radio service if only because of its innovative mobile app. Plus, if you’re not American, this is your best bet. Why these internet radio companies insist on being US-only still baffles me. Honorable Mention: Tune In Radio. This is another excellent option for listening to Radio Music from across the world. Read more about Tune in Radio and how it works. It’s has ad-supported free version as well as paid versions with no ads and additional features. That’s about it for this guide. Where do you get your music from? Did we miss out on any major music services? Share your thoughts and suggestions below. This guide was originally written on Oct 12 – 2011. Updated with new information on March – 21 – 2012. Updated again on April 4, 2013.