From the start, it was clear that digitization would bring the ability to acquire music for nothing, in a mostly-anonymous setting (that is, until a record label subpoenas your ISP for your IP address). For many of us, the availability of so many truly free, truly legal music sources means we no longer bother hunting for stuff on file sharing networks. Nonetheless, all of the major app stores feature dubious-seeming apps that let you download “free and legal” music, some under the protection of the DMCA’s Safe Harbor section, which allows search engines to link to whatever they want, provided they remove links when notified.
I decided to investigate seven paid and seven free apps designed for downloading free music to an iPhone, to find out more about these mysterious apps, which feature similar names, and whose developers tend to be anonymous.
Typically, they include a web browser that you can point at music blogs or other places on the web to download whatever MP3s are linked from there. These apps tend to rank quite highly in iTunes and elsewhere; the first- and fourth-most-downloaded paid music apps in the app iTunes store were “download managers” at the time of this writing. As popular as they are, within the hand-curated iTunes store, my prodding found a seedy underbelly replete with fake websites, bad grammar, and copycat features.
These 14 apps had nearly identical names: “Music Free Download Pro,” “Free Music Download Player,” “Free Music Download,” “Free Music Download Pro,” “Free Music Download & Player Pro Plus,” and so on. At the very least, these developers have a firm grasp of search engine optimization (SEO).
Their official descriptions are also similar to each other, but more poorly-worded. Music Box boasts, “there’s lots of free and legal music online , One you download Music Box allow you play and download any music you want at many legal music sites using muti-threading and resuming download capability! [sic]” while “Download ++” lays claim to being a “fully featured free music downloader. Web browser build-in,Bookmark managerand [sic].” This verbiage reminded me of dodgy eBay companies that sell knock-off versions of premium goods.
The “developer’s website” links — which typically lead to an actual website owned by the developer of the app — proved equally sketchy. Music Free Download Pro directed me to a dummy site that didn’t appear to be associated with the company, while iDownloader Free led to a blank tumblr page. The aforementioned Music Box app linked to an old WordPress website that hasn’t been updated since 2010.
A United Goal
In an attempt to find out a little bit about the people behind these apps, I e-mailed, tweeted, or “provided feedback” to all 14 developers, inquiring about their stances on the digital music market and the DMCA. Only nine had viable methods of contact — the word “viable” being used here in the loosest sense of the word. Out of those nine, only two responded (Free Music Download Pro and the somehow unrelated Free Music Download Pro Plus). I asked the HeavyRotation Apps developer who made the former, about the finer points of getting a music downloader app into iTunes. He responded,
“[Apple says] ‘apps that enable illegal file sharing will be rejected,’ so there is a delicate balance. If you encourage illegal activity in your screenshots or description your app will be rejected. I wish that the wording were ‘encourage’ rather than ‘enable’ [in Apple's agreement]. Email can be used to send copyrighted books, music, and videos, but should we remove all email from the app store because it enables this activity?”
His point is valid, but any app that lets you download from the web could also be used to grab music from sites that post it without permission, which is probably why Apple doesn’t allow its iOS version of Safari to do the same.
The only other response came from a spokesperson for “Free Music Download Pro Plus:”
“We made this app because we beleive [sic] people should have a choice to download and listen not only to the music that iTunes provides them.”
So do we. We just wish these folks would learn to spell.
[Update: During the editing process, this article changed to the effect that these apps download to the iPhone's library; in fact, they download to each app and are only playable there.]
One might think that the classic axiom “competition breeds innovation” would apply here because these apps are so popular, but we were struck by the fact that all 14 apps had pretty much the same features whether they were free or not.
All of them start with a visit to their homepage via the included web browser. The content presented there varies from app to app, but the basic format shows an F.A.Q. page, and a list of pre-approved sites that host legal MP3 downloads, like Last.fm. Only one of the apps mentions the copyright issue. Once you launch “Free Music Download Player,” its browser includes this alert: “Search results may contain copyrighted contents. Search results are provided by various search engines and not by the app developer. You are responsible if you download copyrighted material.”
The apps’ browsers are otherwise fundamentally the same; my focus was on what kind of downloads would or wouldn’t work. I used the same criteria for each app: I tried the Stereogum Gum Mix (a list of free MP3s from the respectable indie music source). All of the apps managed to download it smoothly, and the files played properly upon completion.
Then I moved to Librivox.org, a user-supported website that features free MP3 readings of public domain books. Many of these apps listed LibriVox as a bookmarked site, but only iDownloader Free and Free Music Download Pro Plus were able to download from it. (Ed. note: As such, these two apps appear to be the best choices.)
Then I put on my cyber muck boots and trudged on into the “dark side.” If I was going to resign myself to scouring this squalid part of the web in the name of journalism and science, I’d have to make it fun somehow. And so I tried to download Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” from MP3skull (a website of which we firmly disapprove). That file worked for all but two apps: Music Free Download Pro wouldn’t stop crashing long enough to let me try any links at all, and Free Music Download Pro, whose developer acknowledged the possibility of people pirating music through the app.
As little as I enjoyed hearing the same three-chord structure of “Call Me Maybe” during two full days of research, at least the exercise exposed the ease with which one can grab free music and import it into the iPhone’s native music player, without even using a computer.
What Lies Ahead
Luckily, these apps do not represent the future of music downloading, although they’re quite convenient for adding songs from MP3 blogs and other sources to your phone’s native music library. The market is crowded with opportunistic, elusive developers apparently looking to publish cookie cutter apps fast and move on to their next project. Questions remain about the smartphone as a platform for downloading music from the web, as these apps appear to occupy a hazy middle ground between sites like The Pirate Bay and the iTunes music store.
So, will these apps thrive, like the Demonoids and The Pirate Bays of the world, or will they implode like MegaUpload, Napster, and Limewire? From what we can tell, they’re simply not a big enough deal to have a big impact in either direction, although they’re helpful in a pinch, when you absolutely need a particular blogged-about song on your phone, and you need it now.