Despite grumbling from big-name artists and record labels around rampant P2P 'piracy', there's never been a better time to make money from creating music tracks of your own. There are dozens of useful websites - some completely free to use - that serve budding musicians and seasoned tourers alike. In this post we cherry-pick the best online tools at your disposal to make music, find an audience for it, and then make money from your efforts. (If you're a writer, now's the time to read Josh Catone's excellent Self-Publishing Tool Kit.)

What's Your Motivation?

Every struggling songster sometimes feels abandoned by their muse. If you're looking for tuneful inspiration, then you may need to consult a rhyming dictionary first. There are a few online, but Rhymezone's database returns not just single words that match your query, but entire phrases too. A quick search or two and I produced this gem:

Read/Write Web coming across your network
Raising the blog bar like a clean and jerk
Musicians unite across the web2 landscape
Record labels are dead just like videotape

-- MC Pipes

Well, ok, so we're not going to be winning a Grammy any time soon. Moving right along... Other useful digital devices to put in your toolbox before you get strumming are this web-based guitar tuner, and this database of sound files to search if you're more remixer than troubadour (there's more on digital DJ tools below).

Soundsnap.com is another resource that's more fun to browse if you've got a particular musical itch to scratch; it also allows you to upload your own samples, and retain the rights to your work. Speaking of rights, one of the web's most useful databases for aspiring musicians is the U.S. government's own site at www.copyright.gov. If you're curious about tracks and covers whose copyright may soon be about to expire (making it 'sample-able'), bookmark ASCAP's easy-to-use service as well.

Get Out of the Garage

Many people are familiar with Apple's GarageBand that comes bundled with iLife on OSX. But JamStudio is a pared-down, free web-based app that allows you to script a score and construct song structures with chords. The Flash-based control panel looks just like blank pieces of sheet music, and you can fill in the bars with chords and drum loops. There are a handful of instruments to choose from for the free-to-use version, including electric and acoustic guitars and piano, but more instrument loops are available through the music library add-on, which is free for a limited time, with a fee-based subscription structure planned for the future.

Preloaded genre-specific loops are also part and parcel of the music library, if you want to sidestep the groundwork and have a blues riff play in the background whilst you work out chords to your next masterpiece. Where the application falls down - and this is primarily because it's a new product - is a buggy login system, and the lack of a proper notation system that has a printer-friendly output. In other words, it's great for novices eager to learn how chord progressions make up a good tune, but not ideal for musicians who want to script entire symphonies, because they won't be able to put down individual notes or rests. The system is, however, sophisticated enough to adjust tempo. Here are some other key features that JamStudio is set to offer in upcoming releases: different beats per measure (currently only 4/4 time is allowed), built-in lyric support and song contests. This latter feature would be instrumental (excuse the pun) in the application achieving some sort of following online. In short, JamStudio is a diamond in the rough and with a few tweaks to the existing app, it could be an addictive treat for budding musicians who don't care to learn a more complex application such as the ones listed below.

Knob Fiddlers... on the Roof

These days, of course, toying around with sound files is just as much fun as playing your own tune. But where aspiring Sir Mixalot's used to have to shell out hundreds for the latest high-tech sound processing suites such as ProTools or Propellerhead's Reason, these days there's Splice Studio. Like many web apps, it's not designed to offer all the bells and whistles of a full-featured tool. It keeps the feature set focussed on what remixers want most. That means a decent sequencer, which lets the user add instrument loops and drag samples into the timeline, an effects mixer that's intuitive, and a tool to build up and play melodies (absent in the aforementioned JamStudio). There's a shared collection of samples to help you construct your tracks, and good tutorials to get you started.

What's more, Splice combines the best social networking features - sharing, reviewing, rating - into its community section. Each song you produce through the tool gets its own page on the site, which others can comment on and rate. Better yet: you can even grab the songs of other Splice users and remix them, similar to the way you can remix videos on Jumpcut, meaning each sound has a kind of evolution on the site which is pretty cool. Finally, there are regular contests to find the best remixers on the site.

Johnny No-Bandmates?

For those shy, retiring types, there are several ways to hook up with other musicians to share in the joy of online collaboration, in other words 'jamming' without risking being evicted from your flat, or having to hire out a studio. Pick of the bunch is Kompoz, which describes itself as a 'social workspace for musicians'. You can think of it as Basecamp for music lovers. Registered users can start a 'project' and upload tracks (MP3, WAV, and WMA formats accepted) and request other 'kollaborators' to add in particular instruments or vocals to the base track.

The tracks can also be submitted to the Kompoz Radio web-station and there's even Google Maps markers to indicate where each of the collaborators lives on the world map. Superfluous, but fun.

Got a band but can't always get together in the same place? Two downloadable applications can help you jam with other folks online in real time. eJamming and JamNow are the most refined of the ones we've seen out there and come with extensive user guides, but neither are without their bugs. For Mac users, eJamming's AUDiiO kit is probably your best bet, since PC users will be required to have an ASIO-compliant soundcard for performance reasons. A list of JamNow's supported audio cards can be found here. JamNow's unique selling points are its lively interface and nice Flash jam player, but we'd expect some revisions to both systems before either can claim to duplicate the kinds of quality musicians are likely to receive from a professional sound studio.

More for the Eyes and Ears

If plain old music has never been enough for your adventurous artistic self, you might try exhibiting your flair at SoundToys, a remarkable collection of fascinating audio-visual artistry with a terrific interface. I lost a few dreamy hours of my life dipping into some of the shows on the site, such as Sensity. Artists can contribute a large number of file-types for upload, and there's even an API method set for the more technically gifted contributors.

And if you're definitely not a phony, but you are a ringtone artist, first read this page about how your ringtone can qualify as a copyrighted piece of work, then go to Musicane to upload your tones.

Is There Anybody Out There?

Once you've got a band and some tracks together, you're ready to set up an ecommerce site to flog those songs to the great unwashed. Big Cartel's site-builder is tailored to bands. Moving up from the free version buys you the ability to add up to 100 albums (or products), view statistics, give discount codes, set up an inventory and other features.

But what's the point of creating great music if the masses can't find it? It's a small world after all, and viral, widget-based marketing is becoming more important to finding and keeping an audience for your wares. There are now dozens of sites devoted to helping you place your MP3s for sale on 'host' sites. MySpace users can hitch a ride to online sale with a BlastMyMusic MusicBlaster badge.

Profile owners can upload their music in a matter of seconds and track sales and plays of their tunes. Other music marketplace widgets can be found at Goodstorm. And of course, social music marketplaces such as Sellaband and ReverbNation are great places to hook into fan support.

For those interested in a heavyweight band-management system online, Music Arsenal's web-based organizer may be worth a look. It's been specifically developed for industry types, with contact management, task scheduler, expenses filing, tour date booking services and mail-out tools all in the package. The pricing's pretty cheap too.

Do you know of other web-based tools that would come in handy for a budding musician? Let us know in the comments below.