Music file-sharing was the first major legal challenge for the internet, arising even before concerns over private data and public safety.
In the early 2000s, artists, record labels and the public all fought each other over whether music should be freely available or tightly controlled, and the music industry waged war on pirates. This, of course, encouraged the pirates to fight back, and over a decade later, we’re still in the thick of the legal wrangle.
The good news for the average consumer is that this controversy led to a barrage of illegal and legal music download services hitting the market, and we were suddenly swamped with content. From file-sharing sites like Napster to official bodies like iTunes, everybody wanted a piece of the action.
Like video, there are two ways of listening to music online: You can either download it (save it to your computer) or you can stream it (listen to it online).
Pros and cons of downloading music:
- Choose individual songs as opposed to buying a whole album
- Create your own playlists
- Generally much cheaper than buying the physical product
- Browse, try and buy, all from the comfort of your own home
- Download extra information or songs not available only available online (e.g. special live performances, platform exclusives, etc.)
- Easy to use
- Access to new music from unsigned bands
- Many services provide tailored recommendations based on your listening and purchase history
- No physical product (i.e. no CD or case)
- Not all bands' catalogues are available from download sites
- Internet security risks are common on P2P or file-sharing sites
What kind of speed do I need?
Unlike downloading videos, the demands on your connection are a lot less intensive and most connection speeds nowadays can easily handle music downloads. A music file can be as small as 2MB, which takes between two and eight seconds to download with an 8Mbps connection. Back in the days of 56kbps connections, that same file would have taken hours to download.
To learn more about file sizes and download speeds, check out Bits and Bytes Explained, our uSwitch guide to connection speeds, file sizes, and what it actually means to you. We've also created a quick table of common download times to give you a better idea of how long downloading media can take.
Streaming and downloading music can be done with the most basic internet connection package, so one of our best-value broadband deals should be enough for the average user.
If you plan on downloading or streaming large quantities of music, however, then you’ll probably need a higher-than-average monthly data allowance. These heavy-use broadband packages are more suitable for users who want to download a lot of music.
How to get music online
Apple and the iRange
By now, most people have some kind of Apple device, whether it's an iPhone, iPad or MacBook. The only choice for buying content here is the iTunes web store, and devices usually have to be synched up to a computer in order to receive updates and transfer content.
Other online stores
With the popularity of iTunes, it's no surprise that there are multiple competitors on the market now. For Android users, there's the Google Play store. Amazon Music is also popular and isn't tied into either platform. If you're looking for less mainstream options and want to check out new independent acts, Bandcamp lets you pay what you want for downloads.
Spotify and the other streaming apps
Spotify is by far the most popular streaming app — but it isn't the only one. Its massive popularity has pushed the big name music stores to start offering streaming options as well. Google Play Music, Amazon Prime Music and Apple Music all cropped up in response to Spotify. All of these services offer both free and paid plans. One thing to keep in mind with streaming: Not every artist is available on every platform. Taylor Swift famously removed her catalogue from Spotify, for example, and each platform has some exclusives.
SoundCloud, 8tracks and the world of internet radio and playlists
Internet radio or curated playlists are interesting alternatives for the music buff. Instead of just playing the music you ask for, it mixes it with other songs based on genre, artist, influence or other factors. Pandora was one of the best but is only available in the US due to licencing reasons. SoundCloud, Mixcloud and 8tracks are all popular and available in the UK.
P2P (peer-to-peer) technology is a different way of downloading music that cuts download times. Rather than getting one whole file from one source, it downloads multiple pieces simultaneously from multiple people, then puts them back together once they've all been downloaded. This is a great technology and speeds can be hugely fast, but it is largely used for illegal file-sharing and should be used with extreme caution. Legal risks aside, some of these files may contain malware like viruses or trojan horses, so make make sure your internet security is up to date if you use this technology.
A few tips for staying out of trouble...
The internet is a minefield of copyright infringement, and it's important to stay up to date on what's allowed and what's not. Remember: Your provider can block your service and you can get taken to court for copyright infringement if you download illegally. Keep these tips in mind when downloading music from the internet:
- Download only from reputable sources
- Avoid illegal file sharing
- Don't duplicate anything without permission
- If in doubt, always err on the side of caution