Back in the day, there were only two ways to listen to recorded music. You could tune your radio to a local station and hear whatever song happened to be playing, or you could go down to the record store and buy a copy of your favorite songs on a vinyl disc.
Today, that sounds quaint. According to The Guardian, digital music downloads overtook sales of physical recordings on CD or vinyl way back in 2012. And more recently, even digital downloads have fallen as Americans get more and more of their tunes through music streaming services. In 2019, streaming accounted for roughly 80% of all the music industry’s revenues, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
All this technology has made listening to music significantly cheaper. According to Digital Trends, the average consumer spent $156 on music in 2017, with less than $15 going to streaming music. The main reason that number is so low is that savvy consumers know there are several ways they can get most of their digital music for free — leaving more money in their budgets to enjoy a live concert or two.
How to Listen to Music for Free Online
1. Streaming Music Online
Today, streaming services are indisputably the most popular way to listen to music. With a streaming music service, you don’t own the songs you play, but on the plus side, you’re not limited to the number of tracks you can fit on your phone or MP3 player.
Streaming services can take several forms. Some are subscription services that play music selected for you, some are more like radio stations, and some simply play tunes on demand. However, many streaming music sources blur the boundaries between these categories.
Internet radio stations work the same way as old-school radio: They select songs, and you listen to whatever pops up. However, instead of having just three or four stations in range to choose from, you can choose from a vast list of specialized stations that suit particular musical tastes. Also, if you hear a song you really can’t stand, you can just skip it — something you can’t do when you listen over the airwaves.
Some services take this customization to its logical extreme by creating personalized stations to fit a user’s tastes. Instead of a live DJ choosing which tune to play next, algorithms select songs for you based on which artists and music you say you like.
Advertising funds the majority of Internet radio stations, although some let you upgrade to an ad-free experience for a small monthly fee. Also, paid versions of streaming services let you skip songs more frequently — they generally limit users of free accounts to six skips per hour.
- Pandora. Started in 2000, Pandora is one of the top streaming sites on the Internet. Its music-picking algorithm, known as the “Music Genome Project,” analyzes the songs you like best and then presents you with other songs that share similar qualities. Although Pandora’s basic service is free, you can pay to upgrade to ad-free listening with Pandora Plus ($4.99 per month) or on-demand streaming via Pandora Premium ($9.99 per month). According to Digital Trends, Pandora’s music collection is pretty decent, with about 40 million tracks for its on-demand service. However, the main reason to listen is its “magic algorithms,” which do a fantastic job of picking out songs to match your tastes. You can listen on a range of devices, including computers, smartphones, TVs, and car audio systems.
- LiveXLive. Formerly known as Slacker Radio, this service relaunched as LiveXLive in 2017. The new name reflects its focus on providing live music streams. The service earns an Editors’ Choice award from PCMag, which particularly praises its “curated stations” hosted by experienced and informative DJs. The service boasts an extensive music collection and also hosts videos featuring music news, interviews with artists, and even live performances. It’s also easy to use on multiple platforms, with apps for Android, iOS, Amazon FireTV, AppleTV, and Roku. A free account comes with 128 Kbps audio and the ability to skip up to six songs per hour — and plenty of ads. You can remove these limitations and upgrade your speed by upgrading to Plus ($3.99 per month) or go up to Premium ($9.99 per month) for on-demand and offline listening.
- Last.Fm. At Last.fm, you create a custom profile that’s continuously updated with info about what artists and genres you’re listening to. The site uses this feature, which it calls “scrobbling,” to make personalized recommendations for new music. It also has a social media component, introducing you to other music lovers who share your tastes. A basic subscription to the site is free. An ad-free version with extra features costs just $3 per month. You can listen to Last.fm on the Web or through its desktop and mobile apps. The apps can also track what music you listen to from other services and use that information to enhance your profile.
A subscription streaming music service is like a library filled with songs that users can check out but not keep permanently. Most subscription services pay their bills by charging a fixed monthly rate in exchange for unlimited listening. However, many of them also offer free accounts funded by advertising.
- Amazon Music. You no longer need an Amazon Prime subscription to stream music for free from Amazon Music. However, a free subscription only gives you access to a limited catalog of 2 million songs, and you can’t play any song you choose on demand. Instead, selecting a song launches a playlist of similar music interrupted by regular ad breaks and with a limited number of allowable song skips and ad breaks. Periodically, the service encourages you to upgrade to Amazon Music Unlimited, which gives you ad-free, on-demand access to over 50 million songs with unlimited skips. This service costs $4.99 per month for a student plan, $9.99 per month for an individual plan, or $14.99 per month for a family plan with up to six members. However, if all you want is a mix of songs to fit your mood, a basic Amazon Music subscription can provide that at no cost.
- Spotify. Named the best all-round music streaming service by Digital Trends, Spotify is by far the largest on-demand streaming service in the world today. You can discover new music through the site’s curated playlists or choose songs from its more than 50 million tracks to create your own playlists. You can share your playlists through social media and listen to playlists created by others, including friends, performers, and celebrities. All music on Spotify is free, but upgrading to a paid Spotify Premium subscription for $9.99 per month gives you better audio quality, ad-free playback, and the ability to save songs for offline listening. Spotify runs on Android and iOS devices, gaming consoles, smart speakers, and the newest car audio systems as well as over the Web.
- YouTube Music. The free version of YouTube Music is like a cross between a radio station and an on-demand streaming service. It invites you to name some of your favorite artists, then uses that information to recommend albums, curated playlists, and custom playlists for you. Unlike most online radio stations, though, it lets you move around these lists at will, skipping forward or backward. Ads are relatively infrequent, according to Gizmodo, and it’s possible to skip some of them. You can also search for specific artists, albums, and tracks by name and save your favorites to your library. All this is available free over the Web and on Android and iOS, but upgrading to Music Premium for $9.99 per month lets you listen ad-free and stream in the background while your device is off.
- Deezer. Though it’s not as well-known as other streaming services, Deezer is surprisingly full-featured. This service provides a blend of on-demand streaming, live radio, podcasts, videos, and exclusive content — all for free. On the Web or your desktop, Deezer recommends playlists for you based on your favorite artists and genres, and you can also search for specific tracks (from a library of 56 million) to create your own playlists. Gizmodo says ads aren’t too frequent and track skips are unlimited. The mobile version of Deezer is more limited, with only six skips allowed and no access to personal playlists. If you upgrade your account to Deezer Premium ($9.99 per month) or Deezer Family ($14.99 per month), you get ad-free streaming, synchronized lyrics, an offline mode, and unlimited skips on all devices — not just phones and tablets but also smart speakers, smart TVs, wearable devices, game consoles, and car audio systems.
Some streaming music services don’t have free ad-sponsored versions, but they do offer free trials. These give you a chance to test out the service and decide whether it’s worth coughing up the cash for a monthly subscription.
- Apple Music. With a library of 60 million songs, Apple Music is the ideal streaming service for anyone who relies on Apple devices. It’s the only service that can accept voice commands from the HomePod, Apple’s smart speaker, and any other device that uses Siri, Apple’s smart assistant. Also, people who already use iTunes can find many of their songs available in their streaming library when they first sign up. And that streaming library is quite sizable, with a maximum of 100,000 songs compared to Spotify’s 9,999. Windows users can also use Apple Music via iTunes on their computers, but it doesn’t work as smoothly, according to Digital Trends. Apple Music comes with Beats 1, a 24-hour radio service curated by noted DJs and musicians. The free trial period lasts 30 days. After the trial, choose from three service tiers: student at $4.99 per month, individual at $9.99 per month, and family at $14.99 per month.
- Tidal. Both PCMag and Digital Trends agree that Tidal, a streaming service owned by top rap artist Jay-Z, has better audio quality than any other service. It also offers other perks for hardcore music fans, such as exclusive timed releases from top artists like Beyoncé and other exclusive content, including live streams, concerts, and backstage footage. It even provides early access to certain concert and sports tickets. On the downside, Digital Trends notes that the library isn’t expansive, and it’s not easy to discover new music. Listen on computers, mobile devices, smart TVs and streaming devices, smart speakers, and car audio systems. The free trial period lasts 30 days. After that, Tidal Premium is $9.99 per month for individuals and $14.99 per month for families. Tidal HiFi is $19.99 per month for individuals and $29.99 per month for families.
- SoundCloud Go. This service is the streaming counterpart to SoundCloud’s music download service. Digital Trends calls SoundCloud Go the best way to discover new indie music thanks to its vast library of more than 100 million user-created tracks. The service has nearly 200 million active users each month, and tons of lesser-known artists upload their newest songs regularly. However, unlike many other services, it doesn’t use algorithms to help you find music, so it can take some work to ferret through all the content to find your new faves. The free trial period is seven days for SoundCloud Go and 30 days for SoundCloud Go+. If you like it, you can pay $4.99 per month for SoundCloud Go or $9.99 per month for SoundCloud Go+.
Free Streaming on Demand
Some sites don’t require a subscription to stream music — you just go to the site, pick a track, and listen. For instance, on YouTube, you can type in the name of just about any song and find a video version of it. The artists or their labels post some of these. But some are amateur videos created by fans, and some have just the music accompanied by a blank screen or lyrics. For example, a search for the popular song “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor turned up Trainor’s official video, a live performance of a jazz cover version, and numerous fan-created videos and parodies.
YouTube is an excellent place to find that obscure song you heard years ago — even if you aren’t sure of the name of the song or the artist. Just type in the most prominent line from the song, and let YouTube’s search engine do its thing. Using this method, I successfully tracked down two old novelty songs: “Put the Lime in the Coconut” by Harry Nilsson and “Right Said Fred” by Bernard Cribbins.
2. Free Music Downloads
In the age of the Internet, it’s very easy to download music illegally. However, if you prefer to stay on the right side of the law — and support your favorite artists and the music labels that support them — you need to dig a little deeper to find free music downloads that are also legal.
- Amazon. Amazon has a massive catalog of digital music, including more than 6,000 free songs. Though many of these are obscure tracks by relatively unknown artists, there are also a few gems by better-known groups, such as the rock band Foo Fighters and the classical vocal ensemble Chanticleer. To find free songs, go to the digital music department, look under “Songs by Price,” and select “Free.”
- SoundCloud. The primary SoundCloud service is sort of like YouTube for recording artists. Any user can upload music to the site, making it available for other users to download or stream. Not all the music on SoundCloud is free, but you can find free tracks by both major and lesser-known artists. You can search the site for specific artists or genres or just browse the selections of trending music. SoundCloud’s services are also available through mobile apps for iOS and Android.
- SoundClick. Much like SoundCloud, SoundClick provides a place for independent artists to make their music available directly to listeners. Founded in 1997, this site now offers millions of tracks spanning a variety of genres, including hip-hop, electronic, rock, alternative, acoustic, country, jazz, and even classical. Not only can you download tracks in both MP3 and lossless format, but you can also stream them at speeds up to 160 Kbps. As a subscriber, you get your own profile page, custom playlists, and the ability to follow your favorite artists, connect with other users, and support artists through tips.
- Free Music Archive. Created by radio station WFMU and now owned by the Dutch music collective Tribe of Noise, the Free Music Archive is a collection of free legal music tracks submitted by the site’s users and partner curators. The music on the site appears under Creative Commons licenses, which let artists make their work available for a variety of uses without surrendering their rights to it completely. Digital Trends calls the archive “a veritable treasure trove of free content” that you can search by title, artist, genre, and length. The site also hosts a wealth of podcasts and some live radio performances from big-name artists. Visitors can use the site to save their favorite tracks, post on blogs, and even make purchases or send donations to their favorite artists via PayPal.
- Jamendo. Another site that distributes free music under Creative Commons licenses is Jamendo. Around 40,000 artists from more than 150 countries have contributed more than 500,000 tracks, available for streaming or download, to the site. According to Digital Trends, this site offers a streamlined user interface that makes it easy to browse and find new musicians. Even though most artists featured here aren’t well known, it’s easy to find the most popular tracks based on their user ratings, so you don’t have to sift through countless songs to find the good stuff. If you find a song you’d like to use for commercial purposes — for instance, in a video you want to distribute for profit — Jamendo offers a licensing service that gives you a way to pay the artist for its use.
- NoiseTrade. The “trade” in the name NoiseTrade means that artists give you their music on the site in exchange for your email address and postal code. It’s a win-win for users, who get free tracks or entire albums, and for artists, who get to build their fan bases. Users can create personal fan profiles, keep track of their downloads and favorites, connect with other fans, and send tips to their favorite artists with a credit card.
- ReverbNation. Many well-known artists, including Imagine Dragons and Alabama Shakes, built their fan bases from scratch by sharing their music on ReverbNation. The site hosts over 3.5 million artists representing a mix of genres, like rock, rhythm and blues, jazz, indie, hip-hop, country, and folk. The site’s Discover feature can help you find new up-and-coming artists in genres that interest you.
3. Broadcast Radio
Even in the brave new world of digital media, there’s still room for the old-fashioned kind. In fact, according to a 2019 Nielsen report, more Americans tune in each week to old-school radio — over the airwaves — than any other platform, including TV and all Internet-connected devices.
Far from killing off broadcast radio, the Internet has revitalized it. A couple of decades ago, you could only listen to your favorite radio station when you were in range of its antenna tower, which made it hard for smaller stations with less power to compete. Today, as long as you have an Internet connection, you can listen to any radio station that has a livestream. For example, if I want to listen to my local NPR station, WNYC, instead of fiddling with the radio knobs trying to tune it in, I can just type “WNYC.org” into my web browser and click “Listen.”
The Internet can help you discover new radio stations as well. At TuneIn, you can find and listen to Web streams from more than 120,000 radio stations around the world. Sports, news, podcasts, and talk radio are also available. In addition to its website, TuneIn is available as an app for iOS or Android devices, and you can listen via car audio systems, smart speakers, game systems, smart TVs, streaming devices, and wearables.
You can listen to any station on TuneIn with or without a subscription. However, you will hear all the ads played on the radio station as part of your stream. If you sign up for a free subscription, TuneIn can give you personalized suggestions based on your listening. With a premium subscription, which costs either $9.99 per month or $99 per year, you can eliminate all ads and also stream live sports.
IHeartRadio is another site devoted to traditional radio. You don’t need a subscription to tune into radio stations or search for one by location. The site also gives you access to podcasts and playlists based on genres, decades, or moods.
With a free subscription to the site, you can build Pandora-style custom stations based on specific songs or artists you like. You also gain full access to IHeartRadio’s podcast collection as well as a custom library in which you can save your favorite stations, music, and podcasts. Upgrading to a Plus subscription ($4.99 per month) gives you the ability to skip as many songs as you like, play songs and albums on demand, and save and replay songs you hear on the radio. With an All Access subscription ($9.99 per month), you can also create unlimited playlists and download songs for offline listening.
Despite all the Internet has to offer, digital music may never entirely take the place of physical recordings. There are even signs the old-fashioned record store is making a comeback, with the RIAA reporting that more than 45% of all profits for sales of physical recordings came from vinyl LPs and EPs.
The world of modern music isn’t so much about digital versus analog, recorded music versus streaming, or custom radio versus curated stations. Rather, it’s all about choice. Music lovers today have more options than ever for listening to music exactly the way they want — and thanks to the Internet, they also have plenty of options for how much they spend on it.
What’s your favorite free way to find new music?