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    Digital Music

    Best Online Bets of 2004


    Mark Sabbatini

    Columnist since 2004

    A professional transient wandering Earth's extreme regions.

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    Published: January 2, 2005

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    spacer This is the year I became a believer.

    I've been downloading music for years, mostly a few novelty or sample tracks here and there. But 2004 is the first year where my purchases of online music clearly exceeded traditional CDs.

    And the amount of free and legal music may have surpassed both.

    As someone who works and stores his music collection on the same computer, downloading was a near continuous process during the past year. Those tempted to do the same, be warned - even collecting freebies isn't always cheap: My bill for external storage/backup hard drives alone has reached four- figure territory.

    I, of course, have no plans to stop any time soon. Discovery of "new" sources that usually have been around a while occur almost daily and all indications are that will do nothing but increase regardless of what Big Industry wants. In fact, the ability of anyone to offer their stuff online regardless of talent or budget is what's renewed my hope that quality new music will always have a place in our McDisneySoft society.

    As for trying to compile one of those inevitable "best of" lists, I almost didn't because there's an embarrassing risk of exposing my ignorance by claiming the list below really represents the best of what's out there. There's far too much material to make such a claim and everything changes so fast anything I write this morning might be obsolete by lunch.

    But since some things were certainly better than others, here's a few virtual trophies:

    Best Paid Music Service
    Best Source of Free Music
    Best Source of Illegal/Grey Market Downloads
    Best Freebies from a Record Label
    Best Freebies From an Artist
    Best Free Classic Jazz "Album"
    Best Modern Jazz "Album"
    Best Music Blog
    Best News for 2005

    Best Paid Music Service
    emusic.com and audiolunchbox.com

    I've been raving about eMusic all year for good reason, since their $20 a month for 90 song downloads deal is considerably cheaper than most and their focus is on independent and older albums. In addition, the songs are not copy protected. But Audiolunchbox took me by storm late in the year with its offering of newer and often exceptionally talented musicians on labels not featured at major stores like iTunes. Audiolunchbox also doesn't require buyers to become subscribers or use custom software - and it does allow users to select various non-protected music formats, therefore ensuring compatibility with whatever music player they're using.

    Best Source of Free Music
    Internet Archive - www.archive.org

    This isn't even close. The Internet Archive offers a lifetime of concerts from bands who allow taping - including plenty of name acts like Charlie Hunter, Bela Fleck and Ray's Music Exchange - and from a huge assortment of "Net Labels" that feature public domain albums and music collections. It's possible another favorite, etree.org, is a larger source of live shows, but its user-registration-required process is more difficult to use than the archive. Besides, the archive offers tons of other media content (want to watch old classroom films about what to do in case of nuclear attack?) when man can no longer live by audio alone.

    Best Source of Illegal/Grey Market Downloads

    Yes, I confess to checking a number of them out - it's all part of what I now call work. No I won't be recommending any. Legal issues aside, let me pose a question: Do you really want to give your credit card number to a site hosted in Russia, especially after your browser warns the data "may not be secure?" Nothing against some of those sites, some of which are very professionally run and even explain why their pennies-per-album downloads are legal (which may not hold water in the U.S.), but that's too many risks for my conscience.

    Best Freebies from a Record Label
    Telarc - telarc.com and A440

    Each of these labels offers dozens of songs from a quality roster of artists. Fans of traditional and mainstream jazz will find the Telarc collection more to their liking; contemporary and smooth jazz fans should check out A440 first. But there's enough overlap that both should not be missed.

    Best Freebies from an Artist
    Greg Osby - gregosby.com

    spacer One of the top players in jazz is also one of the most generous, posting a large number of live shows featuring top talent and sound quality. Consequently, I'm willing to buy his albums unauditioned for life and can only hope others are rewarding him properly. Honorable mentions must go to guitarist Charlie Hunter for posting CD covers in addition to multiple albums of material and to trumpet player Jeremy Pelt for an online collection almost as impressive as Osby's. Finally, some of the best artists whose concerts are available at locations like the Internet Archive: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Ray's Music Exchange and Soulive.

    Best Free Classic Jazz "Album"
    "It Came From The Public Domain" - mixtaper.com

    This collection of 11 songs recorded mostly during the 1920s and '30s features well-known legends and more obscure gems, complete with notes about their historic significance. It got more speaker time than any of a number of classic compilation albums I purchased during the past year.

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