Infringe Benefits

Crime pays, or so the record industry claims in its mad scramble to put a lid on a Pandora's box called Napster

by Lee Abraham

"Napster" is -not- fresh slang for someone who enjoys a midday snooze. In fact, anybody who actually has the time to -take- a nap will find a brave new music industry when they wake up. Ironically, thatís exactly what happened to the big record companies. Caught sleeping on the job while dreaming of yet another way to shamelessly profiteer at the publicís expense, big buck record labels woke up to their worst nightmare - their monopoly on distributing popular music is over.

-------Paybacks are a bitch--- Musicians suck at business. The few exceptions with a head for crunching numbers donít want the word to get out - it ruins their artistic credibility. Regardless, such closet capitalists are scarce. The vast majority would rather make music and let someone else handle the money. Enter the sleaze. Artists being ripped off by management and money handlers is an all too common rite of passage on the way to stardom. Itís an old story.

The explosion of rock and roll brought the exploitation to unprecedented heights. More than ever, a few people at the top were making out like, well, bandits. Look at any successful record company and youíll find that the suits at headquarters are banking bigger than any of their top talent. And because of the monopoly on distribution and securing radio air play enjoyed by the big labels, artists who run afoul of a record execís whims live under the fear of being put on the back burner, and lacking the support of their label, ultimately fading from the publicís consciousness.

Toying with artists is one thing. Ripping off the public is another. Although outrage has long subsided, the introduction of CDís in the Ď80s gave record companies a new way line their pockets. CDís cost about the same as the old vinyl records to produce, yet the new technology retailed at double the price. And because CDís sounded better and didnít scratch, people restocked their music collections, buying CDís of the same favorite records they had been spinning for years. Profit margins were, and still are, obscene. There is no good reason for the price gauging - other than being able to get away with it.

Most consumers knew they were being taken advantage of, but there was nothing they could do other than boycott CDs. And a lot of people did. But as the years passed resistance dropped, memories faded, and ultimately, CD sales rose exponentially. A funny thing happened to the record companies on the way to the bank though. While they were busy counting their money, the Internet sprang up. It took a while, but as we go to press, the recording industryís stranglehold on music distribution, and ultimately -profit-, has been broken. Or, so it appears.

------How does Napster work?---

Napster.com provides free software that enables users to quickly and easily share Mp3 music files. Sounds harmless enough. But Napster also helps users -find- each other, and the -music they are looking for-, which can be downloaded from another Napster userís Mp3 collection free of charge. As we go to press, there are apx. half a million songs available. The Recording Industry Association of America claims such trading is blatant copyright infringement. Lawsuits are everywhere. The RIAA is suing Napster among other websites engaging in similar activity. Several major artists have also joined the fray. Hard rock band Metalica sued Yale, Indiana University and USC, and succeeded in stopping students who have been using those collegesí computer systems for massive numbers of Napster music downloads. Rap artist Dr. Dre is the most recent litigant, filing suit against Napster to remove his songs from the website.

It may be too late. "Gnutella," a brand new mutation of Napster style file sharing may prove impossible to shut down. Unlike Napster, which matches people through centralized servers, giving record labels a target to prosecute, Gnutella enables any computer to act as a server. In other words, thereís no middle man. And unfortunately for the record industry, which hopes to stamp out online music trading through enforcing copyrights, such decentralization presents a logistical nightmare.

-------The end of the universe as we know it?--

Mp3 downloads are wildly popular. Although Napsterís only been around for six months, it has over nine million users. An astonishing number considering that it took America Online twelve -years- to attract a similar community. Gnutella, which was introduced in mid March, is still relatively new, but the industry is already feeling its impact. Or at least it claims to be. To the public, record companiesí whining about piracy and copyright infringement falls largely on deaf ears. Not only are the laws complicated, people have a general sense that record companies have been screwing artists and ripping of the public for years. Seeing them take a financial beating doesnít seem to bother too many consumers. Cheating the artists out of their just rewards however is much less palatable. Particularly for the record labels.

"Napster is a tool to infringe copyrights. Period. End of story," says a record company president who requested to remain anonymous. "Thereís one of two outcomes. Either copyright law as we know it is completely devastated, or the recording industry, -and- Hollywood, -and- the software industry fight the bejesus out of it to strengthen copyrights for the digital era. If they are unable to do so, everybody whoís involved in intellectual property, artistic, whatever, loses. Doesnít matter whether youíre a painter, a cartoonist, a recording artist or a publishing house. If something like Napster is allowed to exist, then copyrights are completely destroyed."

Where the copyright battle winds up is anybodyís guess. Itís hard to bet against the deep pockets and far reaching resources of the record companies, but the fact is, regardless of the laws, Gnutella style music trading is going to continue, and in fact proliferate. Thereís just too many new technological advances coming in rapid fire succession to permanently put an end to people downloading music for free. Itís going to happen. While the RIAA tries to tighten the screws on the existing system, advocating stiff penalties, undercover online sting operations and aggressive litigation to create a high profile deterrent, more forward thinking industry players are talking of a "new business model." The logic - if the RIAA is unable to put a lid on Napster, Gnutella, and the rest, artists will be forced to develop new sources of income. Broadcasting performances, endorsement opportunities, and creating fan clubs that give listeners direct access to the artistís music for an annual fee, are few of the more common ideas.

Interestingly, not all musicians are against Napster. Rap rockers, Limp Bizkit is the first to publicly dance with the digital devil. Along with fellow headbangers, Cypress Hill, the bands and Napster are teaming up for a "free" cross country tour scheduled to kick off in May. Thatís right - free! Calling Napster, "An amazing way to market and promote music,'' in a recently published news article, Bizkitís frontman, Fred Durst is gungo ho pioneer of the new music biz cyberscape. "The Internet is here," says Durst, "and anybody trying to fight that, which would be people who are living by certain standards and practices of the record industry -- those are the only people who are scared and threatened."

Time will tell. There may come a day when record albums as we know them cease to exist, but at least for the moment, CDs are safe. And still profitable. Sure, logic says CD sales will suffer from the ready availability of free Mp3ís, but the facts do not yet support that projection. Industry sales figures havenít slumped. Not yet anyway. One thing -is- for sure: music downloads -are- here to stay. And while the musicians and their bean counters try to figure out how to adapt, music fans have more ways to enjoy music than ever before. Thereís certainly no crime in that.