I've been searching off and on for a way to get music cheaply or free for a while. I like supporting local, indie music stores when I can, partially because they're a dying breed and partially because there are a couple great ones in Athens within walking distance of UGA's campus. The problem, however, is that being a starving grad student means I don't have enough disposable income to spend on a slew of albums that I might be interested in hearing. I have to pick and choose. The only other alternative is getting them from torrent sites, and I think the RIAA's narrative and heavy handed tactics are enough to make me feel guilty whenever I even visit one of those sites, regardless of my ambivalence regarding intellectual property and copyright laws.
Early this year I heard about a music service for college students (yes, I still technically count, even though I'm not in undergrad) that provides free music. It's called Ruckus, and it's a fairly good way to access most of the music that you might want. It obviously doesn't have everything, but the selection is pretty good. I mean, most of the albums that I listed in my "Favorite Albums of 2007 (latecomer edition)" and "Favorites so far of 2008" posts I got through Ruckus. The upside is the pretty good selection and ease of getting stuff (once you get the hang of the website/player). The downsides are the following:
1) you have to download the Ruckus player, so that becomes another player that you have to deal with. The Ruckus player itself doesn't have many bells or whistles. It also doesn't link up with other programs very well like iTunes, Winamp, or Windows Media Player. There is a slight way around this, however. The files are all in .wma format, so they can be played in Windows Media Player with no trouble. In fact, I rarely listen to the songs through the Ruckus player anymore; I use Windows Media Player.
2) in order to download anything, you have to have both the player and the website up at the same time. It doesn't all work through just one or the other. This isn't really that big of a deal, but it can be a hassle compared to sites like iTunes and other similar programs.
3) DRM: this isn't specific to Ruckus. iTunes has DRM, and most websites that sell their music (or have it for free) have some form of encryption on their music files. The point, obviously, is to limit what you can do with the music file. Ruckus, however, goes farther than iTunes. With iTunes, you can at least burn the files to a CD even if you can't convert them to mp3 or a more usable file. Ruckus doesn't allow burning, converting, or transferring the files to another device. You can't load the files onto iTunes, because iTunes would need to convert the files away from .wma, and you can't convert them. DRM gets in the way of transferring the files onto a portable mp3 player. If you plan on listening to a lot of music at your computer, then it's ok, but you can't take the music with you as is.
All in all, I'm glad to have Ruckus because at the very least, I can listen to new stuff and get a sense of whether I like it enough to buy either online or in CD form at a local store. If you're a university student, you can sign up for free and download music for free. It's a great, free, legal way to learn about many new artists, and if the album is available from Ruckus, you can get it the day it comes out. For example, I've been listening to the new Death Cab for Cutie album off and on this week. I might review it a little later...Who knows?