Plummeting CD sales threaten an impending race to the bottom of the creative ladder as record companies find less and less incentive to take risks on emerging and progressive artists. This may be the case with physical CDs, but as with much information, the Internet is proving to be a great equalizer (at least until Congress plunders this resource by prioritizing which sites have access to its “series of tubes”). With options ranging from independent artist websites to giant corporate databases it can be difficult to make a downloading decision. Some newer choices are subscription services such as Napster To Go, RealNetwork’s “Rhapsody,” and Yahoo!’s Music Unlimited. These models make some headway as far as striking a balance between copyright concerns and consumer demand for free-ish music. “Napster To Go” gives an interesting pitch: all-you-can-download for $15 a month. Don’t get too excited, there’s a catch: You can fill your hard drive to the brim choosing from a selection of over 1.3 million songs; but end your subscription and the 50 gigs of recently acquired underground German dance-punk becomes unusable. Rhapsody and Yahoo! offer similar services, but they’re all basically Sirius or XM Radio with a little more control. Currently, though, iTunes’ buy-as-you-go service is the juggernaut of the music downloading world. Their simple 99-cents-per-song format (cheaper by the album!) built into everyone’s favorite music player has a stranglehold on the market. It has as broad a selection as its competition, it provides the same sorts of radio station bundles, and it boasts the most intuitive interface on the market. But Yahoo!, Rhapsody and Napster aren’t going down without a fight. With a subscription ($6.99 a month, $59.88 a year), Yahoo!’s rental service also gives you permanent downloads at just 79 cents per song. Rhapsody’s $14.99 per month gives you downloads at 89 cents. Napster To Go’s subscription lags behind – 99-cent songs even with the monthly fee. Even with their drawbacks, these services should give Apple something to think about. When it comes to free downloads, there are fewer and fewer really good options. P2P sites like Kazaa and Limewire pollute your computer with sordid and sundry viruses and spyware. Soulseek, a P2P download site, is a cleaner alternative, but it caters to users with more obscure taste. BitTorrent-type services can be a good option – they are usually clean and have a solid selection. And then there are the fun and exciting sites that show up among the cool 194 million results in Google searches for “mp3 downloads.” There is Download.com, downloadmp3hits.com, and popup death traps such as YourMP3.net and Mp3Raid.com, in which every click cues an ironic (and possibly well deserved) ad for spyware protection. There are smutty, ad-centered sites such emp3world.com. Not only did this site give me free access to the hottest Justin Timberlake songs, but it also promised to find me a “Real SEX Partner in Appleton now!” As always, downloading free music carries with it a karmic price. The casual, thin, “I’m an impoverished college student” rationalization quickly loses legs in light of the devastating, “I’m an impoverished your-favorite-artist” counterargument. Bottom line: Stick with iTunes if you want to stay on the right side of the law. As for free music, there is plenty of music out there on MySpace, artist websites, and in your friends’ CD collections.