Qtrax is the first free and legal music download service that sounds promising enough to check out. (They claim it's a "P2P" service, but I'm not sure you can upload anything, so that disqualifies it in my book.)
They're advertising 25 million tracks, and claiming that all four majors are onboard, although Warner apparently begs to differ. Files are encrusted with DRM, but only to prevent users from burning them to a CD--transfers to any Windows Media-compatible portable music player are OK, and iPod support is promised later this year. (Qtrax hasn't said whether this is a reverse-engineering kludge like RealNetworks pulled off a few years back or if Apple's actually taking the unprecedented step of licensing FairPlay.) It's advertising-supported, but ads are easily ignorable, and I was planning on transferring songs to my Zune anyway--there's no way to display ads there.
So I was looking forward to downloading the Firefox-based client, downloading some new-ish music I'm still on the fence about (LCD Soundsystem), experimenting with older music I've been meaning to check out but never have (where to start with the Jesus Lizard?), and testing the depth of their catalog with some '70s metal ballads I'd never buy but might someday want to hear just for old times' sake (UFO's "Love to Love," Blue Oyster Cult's "I Love the Night").
The beta software is supposed to be "available at midnight, EST!" (Their exclamation point, not mine.) The servers were so overloaded for the first 20 minutes, the site kept timing out. Now, at 35 after, the download page is showing up, but there's nothing there to download.
If first impressions are anything to go by, Qtrax fails. But I'll give it another chance tomorrow and let you know if it's worth the download.