A guide to building your music library the cool way

published Oct 30, 2006, last modified Jun 26, 2013

In this article, we'll explore the three most effective ways to obtain music without paying through your nose or losing access to your music. If you're fed up with the recording studios, just by reading this you'll be making them soil their pants.

Is this illegal?

You bet your ass it is, though it's not immoral or unethical; further down, we'll explain why, and we'll give you a way to avoid prosecution. For the time being, word to the wise: at least in the States:

  • it's illegal to share music online (but, as far as case law goes, not illegal to download);
  • it's also illegal to burn a CD of MP3s and give it to your friends.

It's also that way on a lot of other countries, including mine (Ecuador). So you will be exposing yourself to a certain (but low) probability of getting caught. But, anyhow, what you're about to do is done by hundreds of millions of people around the globe. And, in the end, I discuss a sure-fire strategy to avoid any liability.

So, without further ado, here's the guide:

The beginner's step: Gnutella

Gnutella is the granddaddy of the truly peer-to-peer networks. With Gnutella, you can download music, generally track-by-track. It's also useful to get music videos and other kinds of entertainment, but people use for what it does best: finding and downloading one-offs. Dial-up and slow broadband users should love Gnutella.

The bad:

  • Gnutella is rather slow.
  • Searches can take a while, and most of the time files don't have enough sources. So you have to invest quite a bit of effort to get what you're looking for.
  • Sometimes spammers send fake search results, but good Gnutella clients can block these.
  • Sometimes songs come out damaged; this isn't usually a problem because often there are multiple copies of a song, and you can tell fairly accurately which one sounds best by the size. The music studios are also actively poisoning the Gnutella network.

Great Gnutella programs include:

It takes more effort, but you'll find lots of music: Direct Connect

With a client such as DC++, you can connect to lots of Direct Connect chat servers ("hubs") where people are sharing files. Once you've connected to your chosen server, you can use the search tool to find music files. There's thousands of servers, and most of them have over 500 users at any given time.

One of the greatest features of Direct Connect-powered networks is the ability to, literally, browse other people's collections. You can request a user's file list and download entire folders in one fell swoop. This comes in handy when you want to download entire albums (although it's also good for one-off tracks). More often than not, you'll find people sharing in excess of 500GB of music and movies.

The bad:

  • You need to share, lots and fast. If you're not on broadband, forget about Direct Connect.
  • Most servers will boot you if you're not sharing enough files, or if you're not allowing enough people to download from you simultaneously, and this is actively policed.
  • Also, there's no multi-source downloading and most sharers are busy sharing with others, so your downloads will often have to wait in line.
  • And sometimes people sharing songs you've put on your download queue log off, leaving you with the task of searching for other sources again.
  • Plus, some servers require registration on a Web site in order to grant you a password that lets you search the server.

The killer: BitTorrent

With over 50% of Internet traffic, BitTorrent easily takes the cake. Most legal sharing (in the form of Free Software) is done through this mechanism. Azureus and the original BitTorrent client are two excellent BitTorrent programs. To look for files, I use mininova and BTJunkie, two very popular torrent search engines.

How it works:

  • To spread legal liability, users who want to publish a file create a .torrent file and upload it to a tracker Web site.
  • You search for and download these (rather tiny) .torrent files to your computer and open them with your BitTorrent client.
  • Once you've done this, the BitTorrent client uses the information in the .torrent file to locate the computers sharing the file you want.

Thus, prosecuting sharers then becomes very difficult, since the .torrent file is not illegal to share, and people (the "swarm") downloading files from each other are mostly hard to track -- it's like trying to punish individual drops of water in a torrent, hence the name.

There's another advantage to this: it's really fast. You can (barring other conditions) expect to max out your Internet connection, because BitTorrent automatically downloads several chunks of the file you want from different sources, and once these chunks are downloaded, your computer automatically starts to share them with the rest of the swarm.

Files' integrities are checked when the download is complete, so it's really hard for files to become damaged. All in all, BitTorrent colludes to create a very high-quality file sharing experience.

The bad:

  • You'll need broadband. Why? Because otherwise it'll be slow...
  • ...and because most files available for download are huge. Yes, huge. You won't find one-off tracks, only full albums, entire artist collections, TV episodes (near HDTV quality, by the way), and movies, both in AVI and DVD formats. This stems partly from the hassle that is creating .torrent files for each file you need to share, and uploading them to trackers.
  • Sometimes trackers are down, so your download will take some time to kick in.
  • And in some cases the swarm only has people with portions of the shared file, which makes getting the complete file impossible. This, fortunately, is alleviated by torrent search engines, which display the "health" of the torrent swarm for each file.

Caveat: most broadband Internet providers are actively disrupting or slowing down BitTorrent downloads, so if you're going to use it, activate in your client both DHT (to find more peers) and encrypted connections (to fool your Internet provider's roadblocks) because, hey, what the hell are you paying for if your provider is purposely going to slow your service down?

How to avoid getting caught by the police

It's pretty simple: rent a Linux computer in a free haven (such as Iran or Sweden), and remotely command your download program of choice (BitTorrent is especially suited for this). Then, once your downloads are done (which should be in a matter of minutes), use a special tool such as WinSCP to get the files to your computer. WinSCP encrypts the information as it travels through the space we know as the Internet, and your computer doesn't share any files. You get what you need, you protect your privacy, and the studios won't have any evidence to sue your ass.

Is this immoral or unethical?

We're finally going to discuss the crux of this article. The reason I wrote this guide is simple. There's a huge difference between "immoral" and "illegal", and there are powerful forces that are trying to wash everyone's brains into thinking they're the same.

You have the right to know and decide for yourself. And there's something you should know right away:

Modern music download services such as the iTunes store use Digital Restrictions Management to make your computer police you, and to bar you from convenient access to your music, so if you purchase DRM-laden music you're screwed from the outset. More often than not, this will end up burning you.

The only two formats you can use to securely store music on your computer (barring hard disk crashes) are MP3 and Ogg Vorbis, and you're not going to find them on most pay-per-listen music download services. Oh, by the way, Ogg Vorbis format files are the one that sound best, but only a minority of portable music players play them.

Before you decide to leave flaming comments saying I don't care about music artists (not true, by the way):

  • Downloading music from the Internet is not stealing. If I steal an apple from you, you no longer have the apple to enjoy. If you give me a song, you can still enjoy it. There's no "stealing" if you get to keep your copy.
  • I don't really have much time or the ability to explain this in more depth, but if you disagree with me, please read the book Against Intellectual Monopoly (it's a free download!), then come back and re-read this guide.
  • I'm really not interested in arguments about being supportive to the artists and whatnot, and if you think that way, you've swallowed too much intellectual monopolists' propaganda to understand the underlying social issues around music downloads.
  • I don't blame you for not sharing my beliefs, since even the Supreme Court justices in the States have misunderstood the fundamental issue. Go read the book I posted, then come back.

Last: a simple request from you

Please redistribute this to as many people you want. This is only a practical guide to help you; but, if enough people get the word around, we will change the way music is done, and we'll put an end to the racket that is the current "music business". Digg it, e-mail the story link to your friends, whatever you want. But do it: just a small effort from you, to help a rather important issue at stake here: your freedom.