While the Internet is not the free music Wild West it was a decade ago, there are still plenty of music download sites where you can download music for free, and do so with a good conscience. Especially when it comes to independent musicians, we should make every effort to find only free music authorized by the artists themselves. Here are some excellent music download sites that will allow you to do it:
Bandcamp is an especially good place to discover independent music, as opposed to Top 40, major label fare. This is one of the largest online music platforms, and one highly valued by musicians themselves. Not only does Bandcamp allow musicians to make more money per download (starting at 85% vs. iTunes' 70%), but it gives them the ability to offer free album and single downloads, and even sell physical merchandise. If you're ever feeling adventurous or curious, just go to Bandcamp's home page and click "discover" to see new arrivals, best-sellers, and artists' recommendations. And Bandcamp has recently made it possible for music fans to create their own pages, to show off their "collection" of music found on the site. Fans can then follow each other, say people with similar or intriguing tastes, to help them discover even more free music.
While not everything you see will on Bandcamp be free, a large percentage of artists offer some kind of free download as a way of introduction. Your only cost will be your email address, so expect some emails down the road. But you can always unsubscribe; a small price to pay to discover some great music.
While heavy on pop and indie rock, Noisetrade is another excellent place to discover and download new music. Everything here is free - this time an email address and postal code is your only cost - and artists often offer entire albums, multi-album samplers, and live records on the site. And, as with Bandcamp, you can stream the music before deciding to download.
While Bandcamp & Noisetrade are music download sites with large catalogs of very good independent artists, Freegal Music provides millions of songs from 10,000 record labels, including Sony Music. You can download free mp3s, but there are a couple of catches. The first big one is that you must have a library card number from a public library that subscribes to the service. If you've got that (check with your library), you're in, and you can start downloading Adele, The Shins, Kelly Clarkson, Mumford & Sons, Train, the list goes on and on. The other catch is you have a maximum number of free downloads each week - this depends on the library, my own account having a maximum of 5 free downloads per week.
Straight to the horse's mouth
That is, go straight to an artist's website that you're interested in downloading free music from. Whether it's an indie warrior or a major label stalwart, odds are they've got at least one song to download as a thank-you for stopping by, and it's usually easy to find on the very first page.
While you're on the hunt for some great free music, allow me to recommend a favorite of mine. An excellent folk-pop act from Nashville - prattle on, rick. - has two free songs for you at http://prattleonrickmusic.com . Click and download in an instant - I personally guarantee you won't regret it, and I know that they'll send you several more free downloads just for being on the mailing list.