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Have the recording industry's evil minions scared you off of swapping tunes online? Tremble in fear no more. There are plenty of ways to legally share music across the Internet, far from the clutches of the RIAA's attorneys.
Music-sharing sites also provide a great way to connect with people who share your excellent musical taste, as well as to get recommendations for new music that you'll like just as much. You might even make a few friends along the way.
Of course, there are more search engines and social networks based on music than there are cover versions of "Louie Louie," so winnowing the list down to just five wasn't easy. If we've overlooked your favorites, post them below. And thanks for sharing.
We do have a few caveats, of course. In most cases you are limited to streaming music to your PC or handset, not downloading it. A couple of sites permit you to upload your own tunes for others to enjoy, but they don't work with DRM-protected music. In other words, there's nothing to stop you from sharing MP3 files that you downloaded illegally (and you know who you are, you naughty little monkeys). But music you purchased from the iTunes store--or ripped from a CD using the iTunes software? No can do.
The world's largest social music network is built around what it calls "scrobbling." Download the Last.FM software, and it scans (or "scrobbles") your most recently played songs on iTunes, WinAmp, or Windows Media Player to build a profile of your musical interests. Enter the name of an artist into the FM software, and it plays a song at random and creates a playlist of others you might like. Thus The Clash begets the Ramones, Dead Kennedys, and Green Day. Norah Jones leads to Billie Holiday, Diana Krall, and John Coltrane. And if by some dark confluence of events Justin Timberlake comes on, you can click the 'Ban' button and never have to hear that song again. (Wouldn't it be great if everything worked like that?)
The site itself is chock-full of goodies. You can download free tracks from artists like David Byrne and Juvenile, upload or watch videos, see what stuff other Last FMers have scrobbled, and so on. Before you know it, 3 hours have passed and you've blown another deadline. Sigh.
Newly launched in beta, Social.FM (formerly Mercora) features a nice iTunes-like interface, but it's still a little buggy. Download the player to your desktop or your mobile phone, or put a Social FM widget in your Facebook, MySpace, or Xanga profile. Then you can upload your fave tunes, create playlists or "channels," and become a world famous DJ--or something like that. One cool feature is the ability to access your music via your smart phone (though my LG phone's IQ apparently isn't high enough to conceive of such a thing).
You say you'd rather listen than play DJ? Type the name of an artist into the Web search engine, and it will show you biographical info, plus songs and YouTube videos (provided that another Social FM DJ has uploaded them). The search engine needs a little fine tuning, however--a search for the seminal LA punk band X turns up songs from Abba's "Mystic Xmas Night" (!) and videos of Malcolm X. You can also send e-mail invites so your pals can enjoy your musical selections (though this feature wasn't working properly when I tried it).