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4/30/2006

I'm a thief!

The_Thief

Why I Download: Confessions of a Music Junkie

by Mike Prevatt

I am a thief because I acquire music from the Internet. Habitually. Gleefully. Unapologetically.

I download, I stream, I burn, I rip and I glow. I shuffle through playlists, scour file sharing engines, peruse Web sites for music video selections and compile songs for mixes I make for my friends with less tune-hunting time than I have.

I do it all to find The Song. The One that elevates me when I'm down or, conversely, compliments the hurt after a rough day. The One that makes my adrenaline surge, my serotonin flood, my blood rush to my head. The One that connects me to another person. The One that connects me to the artist who authored it. The One that connects me to myself.

And yet, I'm told that by doing so, I am conducting burglary. I am accused of being unlawful. Unethical. Unloyal to musicians, even.

Unloyal?

I spend thousands of dollars on prerecorded music every year; I spend hundreds on concert tickets; and I even spend $13 a month on satellite radio service. I stomach MTV and broadcast radio. DVDs? I have almost as many music titles as I do cinematic ones. Singles? Still buy 'em. Imports? Worth the extra dough. I've even dabbled with vinyl and I don't even own a turntable.

You could never convince the music business that it's enough. Hell, you couldn't even convince me that it's enough. I'm listless and perpetually unfulfilled when it comes to music.

As a rabid fan, I am always craving music -- new, old and current. I want to know what people were listening to back in the day, what they're listening to now and what they'll be listening to in the future.

I'm not an addict. I just love music. I'm willing to do anything to get more of it. And in all likelihood, so are you.

You Say You Want a Digital Music Revolution

People like me have been listening to music on the Internet for more than eight years now. In the mid-'90s, you could find burgeoning Web sites that featured some sort of musical demonstration. Some songs played as soon as the homepage came up. Some could be streamed, where a temporary file is "forgotten" as soon as it was over (like a radio broadcast online). And some were available for download, meaning you could save them in your computer. The song files were typically primitive, but it was another way to experience music.

Along came the Moving Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer III, or MP3 for short. In 1997 or so, a couple of college students got a whiff of the compressed file that could playback songs a couple notches below compact disc quality, but better than that of streaming audio. They also discovered an "Amp" engine that could play the files. They threw a Windows interface on the Amp, called it WinAmp and began to distribute it on the Net. That's when it all went downhill. Or uphill, depending on how you look at it.

In 1998, university students armed with dormitory broadband (non-dial-up, high-speed) Net access, along with tech-suave geeks and music fans worldwide, began to acquire copyrighted music online for their personal WinAmp players. Within one year, MP3 became the standard format for listening to songs on the Internet, and their distribution over thousands and thousands of unregulated web sites meant that virtually any song ever recorded was available. Portable devices, spearheaded by RioPort, allowed the songs to move from desktop to a mechanism the size of a pack of cigarettes. People could store their new files on blank discs, to be read in other people's computers -- or better, they could decompress the files, save them and play them in certain CD players. One Web site, MP3.com, a massive community of artists and computer users willing to share their music, developed virtual storage lockers for fans and their music.

But that was just the start of what people were already calling the digital music revolution. In 1999, Shawn Fanning, an 18-year-old Northwestern University dropout, wondered if there was a way for computer users to easily swap song files online. He created Napster -- and in early 2000, the file-sharing, peer-to-peer service revolutionized the music industry forever. A year after its release, 60 million people downloaded the free software and adopted it as their one-stop music warehouse.

A kid in Tokyo could have the same music library as one in Omaha, Neb., with just a few clicks.

This, predictably, didn't sit well with the Big Five labels:

and in 2001 their lobbying arm, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), convinced a federal judge to shut Napster down. The problem? Artists, labels and publishers were not being compensated by the free trade of song files over the Internet. Sure, there were several ways to obtain music on the Net -- even other song-swapping programs like Napster. The inventors of MP3 had made it easy for people to develop programs and software for it; there was no regulation or encryption that would hinder the advancement or potential of the technology. But no single entity had popularized the free distribution of music like Napster. By temporarily disabling the company/service, now being swallowed up by BMG, there would be less peer-to-peer downloading, less copyright infringement and less money loss in the music business. Right?

Wrong. Bustling during and after Napster's reign were file-trading services like Gnutella, Grokster, Morpheus, Aimster, Limewire and KaZaA (which currently boasts 91 million handouts of its program on CNET's Download.com) -- among others, providing easy-to-download, easy-to-use technology by which music fans could swap songs. Though the RIAA has sued nearly all of the companies behind the aforementioned services, most of them have done nothing but increase the amount of free music downloading on the Internet. In 2001 alone, nearly 8 billion song files were reportedly traded online.

With a number that huge, it's extremely likely either you or someone close to you obtained a recording online at no cost.

Too Little, Too Late

While music mavens were gobbling up digital music to our hearts' content, the music industry literally sat and did nothing. Not understanding the technology, the impact of an intangible format such as MP3, the distribution potential online or its own customers, the Big Five failed to develop their own mechanisms for marketing and selling music on the web -- and paid for it big time.

During this year's South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, the head-hung-low industry revealed how the digital music revolution not only snuck right past it, but robbed it. Last year, the top 10 bestselling albums -- the bread and butter of the business, many say -- sold 25 percent less than the year before. Sales overall were down between 5 and 10 percent, depending on which statistic you read. And no single album sold more than 5 million copies.

To add insult to injury, recordable compact discs -- which many digital music fans use to store MP3s and burned or recorded music -- outsold prerecorded albums 3-to-1.

Why? The industry refused to give consumers what they wanted.

For eons, the industry conducted business on its own terms, and people had to go along with it. This recently included CDs with a suggested retail price of $18.98, and very little in the way of digital alternatives. Now that consumers have found a way around the standard CD format -- and its high cost -- the labels are scurrying to catch up.

Universal and Sony teamed in 2001 to create Pressplay, which is one of two high-profile subscription services offering legal downloads. EMI also joined the service. In addition, MusicNet (or RealOne) was launched last year by Warner, BMG and EMI -- in conjunction with RealNetworks -- as another subscription-based function. These two services took the master recordings of the labels' music and made them available to computer users. Both services, which cost about $10 a month, claim that they offer high-quality music and that the artists get compensated. A no-lose situation, right?

Wrong. There are several problems with Pressplay and MusicNet -- and it's the music consumers who pay.

First, the Big Five failed to agree on a single service that would allow all of their music -- 85 percent of the recorded music out there -- to be accessed. (Big surprise -- they can't agree on much of anything, really.) So now, music fans must know the label that released the song they desire in order to download it, or subscribe to both services. Someone seeking rocker Tom Petty's "Wildflowers" won't find the song on Pressplay, as he is signed to Warner; it is only available on MusicNet. Conversely, you won't spot rapper Jay-Z's recent material on MusicNet, as he has been linked with Universal since 1997.

Second, the songs are not in MP3 format. You must use their players to hear the songs. Many of the songs are in streams, which often come out of speakers in a faded, echoey manner. And if you download a song, it can never be a permanent part of your collection. Once you quit the service, the files go along with your subscription.

Third, there is no unlimited amount of downloads for either service. In some instances, you can only download two songs from the same artist during one month. To accrue more download opportunities, you need to subscribe to premium plans, which come at a higher monthly rate.

Other ventures, such as Streamwaves, EMusic and Listen.com, are making inroads with the Big Five to make more music legitimately available. Listen.com, in fact, recently became the only service to offer music from all five labels. Sony and Universal are also facilitating the direct purchase of songs and albums online, from 49 cents a single to $9.99 an album -- clearly a step in the right direction.

The major flaw with these efforts is they offer no incentive to the music devotee to pony up the dough. If I've been downloading some or all of my music for the past year for free, why should I start paying now?

Been Caught Stealing

Even a hardcore music fan like me knows that downloading music from KaZaA and the likes is pretty much illegal. Then again, so are smoking pot and speeding, and some of us think nothing of committing those crimes. But there's a conscience to acknowledge when it comes to freely swapping songs online, and it pertains to the creator of the music. Without the download option, we might normally buy the physical recording in the store or through e-commerce means. Then, the artist could theoretically be compensated for his work.

Downloaders take the musician and his work for granted, but God forbid anyone should raise hell about the subject. Hard rock act Metallica tattled on 300,000 Napster users who traded its songs, and it subsequently suffered massive backlash from its fans and the media. Michael Greene, president of the Recording Academy, launched into an outrageous diatribe during this year's Grammy Awards that called file sharing "the most insidious virus in our midst" and a "life-and-death issue." The widely ridiculed speech was rumored to be one reason behind his forced resignation in April.

Still, one can't ignore the idea of an artist and his need to make a living.

"I think there's a terrible perception that artists shouldn't do anything for themselves," says Don Henley, pop musician and staunch critic of free file trading. "It's almost like there's a guilt factor that we didn't earn any of this, unlike other professions. [Some people think] music should be free, and the people who make it are not supposed to really be in the business for themselves, or looking out for themselves. They are just supposed to be providing free entertainment for the rest of the world."

The arguments among peer-to-peer advocates and users range from the fair use of recorded material (VHS taping) and the innocence of KaZaA and the likes in facilitating piracy, to the notion that users will ultimately support artists they download financially by purchasing their CDs and attending their concerts. But many in the industry aren't buying it. They use the decreasing sales numbers as evidence of their plight. They also point to mislabeled files, poor recording quality and unreliable service as reasons to forgo file trading services and opt for label-sanctioned services like Pressplay, MusicNet, MP3.com (now owned by Universal) and Listen.com.

The RIAA has long used litigious intimidation to counter what it sees as widespread piracy. Now, it may seek to punish the real perpetrators: you and me. Recent developments suggest the labels are discussing ways to sue file traders -- in particular, those distributing the highest volume of copyrighted material -- a tactic they have previously shunned. The threat is clear: Play by our rules or we'll take your ass to court.

The Defense

For a music fan, the web is a limitless supply of tunes and resources -- legit or otherwise. In eight minutes, with high-speed Internet access, you can download KaZaA, figure out how to work it, and then download -- say -- Dirty Vegas' "Days Go By." You can visit Launch at Yahoo and watch hundreds of music videos on authorized streams. You can hear snippets of songs at Amazon.com, to see if buying a particular album seems worthwhile. You can preview the yet-to-be-released Flaming Lips album on MusicNet or a new Red Hot Chili Peppers song on AOL. Or you can choose a song off Limewire (one of the few Macintosh-friendly peer-to-peer services), look at whose copy you're downloading and see if that user has any other selections you might be interested in.

This phenomenon has commercially aided artists more than the record labels would like to admit. A few examples:

* In 2000, Brit rock act Radiohead's Kid A was already being downloaded from the file swapping services, before it was released in October. This, despite concerted attempts from the band's label (Capitol) to keep it out of the public's hands before release. No matter -- the album, considered to be the band's most un-mainstream work, sold 200,000 copies in one week, landing Radiohead its first No. 1 effort and eventually going platinum.

* Rock band Wilco, after being dumped by Reprise Records in 2001, streams its new work, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, online before it finds a distributor. In April, Nonesuch releases it on CD, and the critically hailed work is on pace to be the band's most commercially successful album to date.

* Punk-oriented group the Offspring had the most illegally downloaded song of 1999 with "Pretty Fly For a White Guy," and still sold more than 4 million copies of its Americana album. Pretty fab for an oft-downloaded band.

Why We Do It

We download because we are tired of radio either not featuring enough variety or playing too many advertisements. Thanks to the narrow playlist of media conglomerates like Clear Channel, the majority of broadcast radio no longer caters to anyone but fans of top 40. Online we can hear countless unsigned and unbroken artists; it is there they thrive beyond their hometowns.

We download because MTV and VH1 rarely play videos anymore, and when they do it's the same label-hyped artists over and over again. MTV2 has sought to focus on videos and not programming, but it is not available to the majority of cable subscribers. Going to Launch, Sputnik7.com or even the artists' web sites can allow us to see the visual accompaniment of songs from all genres.

We download because we will not pay $20 for albums that typically feature one or two songs of quality or appeal. Even with Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Target pricing albums below $14, and sometimes as low as $6, there is no way to obtain a fraction of the music being marketed relentlessly by major labels. And forget about being offered a decent array of singles, forcing us to fork over the $20 for the full-length.

It is increasingly hard to find music worth that amount of money, and the industry is reluctant to accept that.

We download because it is difficult to sympathize with a business that claims its artists are losing money to the file sharing phenomenon, and then typically pays them last -- after the label, the managers, the lawyers, the label's promotion department and everyone else involved in making and promoting the record. Artists make little, if any, money from albums unless they are megasellers. It is through touring and merchandise sales -- and maybe publishing royalties -- where artists have any hope of recouping the costs of making an album and earning a living. Downloads can't infringe upon concerts, radio play and T-shirts.

We download because the government -- largely uneducated on the issue of copyright infringement on the Net -- has been slow to legislate whether we're actually stealing or not, and intervene on the issue of proper licensing payment.

We download because we love music. We want unlimited music, which we can use in any way we want, for the least amount of money. The Internet, right or wrong, provides us with the means to accomplish that. The white label versions, rarities, hard-to-find b-sides, out-of-print titles, live performances, hard-to-find remixes -- they're all floating in the cyber ether, within grasp at any moment. How do you convince a music junkie to ignore that?

And we download because for the first time in years, after the price-gouging and marginalization of the art form we love most by the music industry, we have something to be excited about. And it wasn't started by the Big Five -- it was started by music fans and computer users. We changed the music experience forever.

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