Think back—way back to the last century—when dot-com stock was worth more than the lint in your pocket, when Eminem was spelled M&M, when Napster was an unheard-of start-up. Even in the covered-wagon days of MP3 file sharing, there were ways to circumvent the banality of MTV and mainstream (or even public/college) radio. There still are, despite the fact that both Napster and MP3 have been coopted by the major record labels. Some are high-tech, others technophobe-friendly. Most require more effort than Napster, but the rewards—a community of like-minded music nuts and a collection of gems that will never, ever find their way onto the Billboard 200—are well worth it.
For computer-savvy fans with high-speed connections, FTP (file-transfer protocol) search sites like oth.net, AudioGalaxy.comand AudioFind.com are popular ways to find MP3s on other users' FTP sites. Oth.net in particular offers access to potentially thousands of collections. Several hosts make you jump through hurdles (like clicking on a slew of ad banners) or upload files in order to download, and many links lead to the dreaded 404: File Not Found, but if you can master the technique, you'll have plenty to satisfy your aural fixation. If you have an always-on connection (like DSL or cable), you can even set up your own FTP site and let the music hounds (and the uploads) come to you.
I CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S NOT NAPSTER
While they have a loooong way to go before they can match the simplicity, speed and selection of the Big Boy, programs like Gnutella (now at www.bear share.com) and Aimster (www.aimster.com) allow you to search and download MP3s and other files. Gnutella requires the use of BearShare, a non-Web-based program similar to Napster. Aimster communicates with AOL Instant Messenger and Gnutella for maximum search results. Obscure artists may be hard to find, but it's only a matter of time before one of these programs acquires the fan base and functionality that Napster once had.
BIG RED H
Friendlier than Napster ever was, more powerful than an Internet locomotive, the Big Red H transforms your computer into a server. Go to bigredh.com, download Hotline software, and create your own music-sharing community.
The most popular program for using IRC (Internet Relay Chat), mIRC is a portal to hundreds of subject-specific channels where you can chat or download files. You can't search them, but join a few MP3 rooms and a continuous stream of available files trickles down your screen—just double-click to snatch them. Visit www.mirc.com to download it.
Though they usually require a DSL or cable line, web-based stations are static-free, often commercial-free havens where aficionados of everything from dance hall to rockabilly can hear, discuss and even purchase their favorite tunes. Behemoths like Spinner.com and NetRadio.com offer hundreds of channels, while sites like LuxuriaMusic.com (the lounge station spawned by Combustible Edison's Millionaire) cater to a niche audience. They also offer perks traditional radio can't, like broadcasts on demand, video interviews and chat rooms. Hubs like www.vtuner.comor internetradio.about.com let you search by genre, title or area to find the supreme stream.
MESSAGE BOARDS AND MAILING LISTS
Downloads are a great way to nab songs you've already heard or heard about, but without exposure to new artists and genres, your "must have" list will quickly dry up. Message boards (www.ezboard.com) and mailing lists (groups.yahoo.com) connect fans of similar bands, labels or genres who can tip one another off to new finds and local gems. While flame wars occasionally arise, most forums are chock-full of good-natured folks whose brains—and CD collections—are ripe for picking. The URLs mentioned here have hundreds of lists and boards to choose from, but many band and label (or fan) websites have their own.
LABEL AND BAND WEB SITES
If these sites are sophisticated enough to have boards, mailing lists or chat rooms, they're certain to have an avalanche of other goodies—free MP3s, band bios, interviews and tour dates. Many let you purchase an artist's CD without the Virgin Megastore markup. Many indie imprints also cater to a particular sound, so if you like three of their bands, you'll probably like most of them. Download some samples and find out. You can usually find the band/label in question by typing in www.[name of band].com or using a search engine, but if that doesn't work, try the Ultimate Band List (www.ubl.com).
GENRE WEB SITES
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Whether you're into drum-and-bass, ambient or math rock, sites like Insound.com and Epitonic.com are like cyber-thrift shops—you can find a little of everything, they're obscenely cheap (mostly free), and you don't have to enter with any particular purpose. Browse free downloads, articles and zines; check out underground recommendations or genre explanations (what the hell is "downtempo," anyway?) from a knowledgeable staff; and listen to album streams or radio broadcasts. If you don't know what you want, you want to come here. You'll never leave without a great find.
These guys may have yet to make a profit, but music hounds who visit them have profited in spades. Not only does Amazon offer discounted discs, artist info and sound samples, but over the past few years, they have also developed elaborate rating and recommendation systems to point you toward new artists. Editors and fans alike submit reviews and create lists of their favorite items. You can even save fellow fans who share your tastes to a Friends List so you can check them periodically or be notified when they post something else. If you're into Sting and the Dave Matthews Band, the recommendations may be pretty far-flung (in either case, put the Weekly down and tune into Star 98.7), but if Lambchop or Heavy Vegetable is more your thing, your recs are likely to be right on.
Depending on the level of your Internet connection, tech-guru status and supply of patience, one or all of these suggestions will keep you in a steady flow of new artists and music. Trust me—considering the time you've probably spent tweaking TV and radio antennas, rolling your eyes during the World's Most Overplayed Song and returning crappy albums to the store, it's a total payoff.