Since the mid-1990s, music has evolved beyond the compact disc and onto the internet. Seemingly overnight, the web opened up into a resource for virtually any song or artist. A plethora of sites allow users to virtually share their music collections with one another. Some of these are legal, and, in turn, are endorsed and supported by the music industry. Some are illegal and have consistently been the target of the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA. This article will take a look at the most popular music-sharing sites on the internet.
File sharing in general rose to prominence in the 1990s. Many peer-to-peer file sharing networks--that is, networks where users are directly connected with each other--became incredibly popular and almost immediately controversial. Napster was perhaps the first major outlet for the sharing of music in particular and reached success on a global scale. After much controversy, it was shut down and returned as a legal pay subscription site, which began the trend of forcing users to find acceptable new ways to download files every few years. Sites that followed Napster included Kazaa, Limewire and popular Bitorrent sites like The Pirate Bay.
The RIAA has always been quick to blame the steep decline in sales of music to the rise of file sharing. Record sales fell $6 billion from 1999 to 2003. Users who illegally share copyrighted material have been under a consistent barrage of lawsuits in the times since--many being forced to pay a fine in the thousands of dollars per downloaded song on their computer.
There are a variety of different ways to share music over the Internet. Limewire, for example, is a downloaded program that connects you to a network of shared libraries through which you can browse. It has been consistently popular for the last few years. You can also use Bitorrent to share files. This requires a person to download a file from a web page called a "torrent," which is a little gateway to the desired information on someone else's computer. Lastly, there are sites that stream music on demand from a variety of users, like Last.FM. You simply select a band or genre of music you enjoy and you are treated with an appropriate "radio station" which plays only those types of songs.
The act of file sharing itself is not illegal. However, more often than not, programs like Limewire and Bitorrent sites lead way to the piracy of copyrighted material. File sharing has a reputation of being used by users who do nothing but share illegally downloaded songs, but that's not the case. Oftentimes these sites are filled with perfectly legal music--for example, albums from unsigned independent bands looking for exposure and who are using file sharing as the great resource that it is.
File sharing has always proved to be a heavily trafficked enterprise. Napster, during the peak of its success, was used by millions around the world. Limewire was also heavily trafficked, but never reached the heights of Napster. An estimated 35 percent of all traffic on the internet is by Bitorrent users. Last.FM has more than 21 million active users all sharing play lists and tracks from artists both signed and unsigned by major recording labels.