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The trouble with Napster

The trouble with Napster–Will free MP3s revolutionize the music industry, or leave artists broke?

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Aimee Mann, whose Magnolia soundtrack was nominated for an Oscar, self-released her new album, Bachelor No. 2, in February. You can’t buy Bachelor on CDNow, and Amazon.com lists it as ”not yet available,” but nearly all of her luscious new tunes can be downloaded from the Net right now — for free — using a software program called Napster (available at napster.com). And unlike Jimmy Page and the Black Crowes, who are selling an Internet-only live recording through Musicmaker.com, Mann hasn’t authorized these downloads. So is she is losing money to pirates or getting loads of free promotion that will boost her indie-label sales? It depends on whom you ask.

Napster, the brilliant creation of 19-year-old Northeastern University dropout Shawn Fanning, is essentially a humongous music trading post — and it’s got the recording industry in a tizzy. Here’s why: When you install Napster, it creates a folder for holding MP3s on your hard drive. At that point, you can download tracks from the music folders of anyone else who is logged on — and they can do the same to you. And since upwards of a million people use the service daily, you can find everything on it: Santana’s chart-topper, Missy Elliott’s single, Beck’s B sides. Napster is so popular among college students — who are known to leave it running through the night while grabbing hundreds of songs — that it’s eating up the superfast Net connections on campuses around the country; almost 200 schools have cut off access to the software as a result. And the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has filed a massive lawsuit against the year-old company, seeking damages of up to $100,000 for each copyright-protected song swapped. Napster says the lawsuit is unenforceable since they have no way to track what songs — much less how many — are traded with their software.

With the official release of Napster version 1.0 last week, Fanning’s original quest to simplify the process of finding MP3s online has turned into an incredibly complex, and viciously heated, issue. When MP3 first busted onto the scene, plenty of artists and managers — including Ron Stone, who represents Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Chapman, and Ziggy Marley & the Melodymakers — hoped it could change the old plantation-style contracts they had with record companies. But now Stone likens Napster to an accomplice in MP3’s thievery. ”Instead of the Internet becoming a reasonable alternative, [Napster is] pushing us to stay in business with the record companies,” says Stone. ”They basically facilitate stealing the copyright — and if that’s the future on the Internet, then there is no future.”

Anyone who has had their work stolen can empathize with Stone and his artists, except that the recording industry’s bizarre economics almost make Napster look like a savior. Other than a chart-topping minority of acts, musicians generally don’t make money from CD sales. Most acts earn their keep from touring and merchandising. Those sales depend heavily on getting promoted and discovered by the masses. And Napster turns out to be the easiest way to discover new artists that this writer has ever found. When I roam through the file folder of a fellow Napsterite whose musical tastes match my own, I’m especially interested in downloading tracks by bands I’ve never heard of. If I don’t like the band, the songs get deleted; but if I do, buying the CD is a sure shot. ”How do you use the Net as a promotional vehicle for sampling music? That’s what we’re about,” argues Napster CEO Eileen Richardson. ”Any artist that has released an MP3 for free on the Internet has seen their sales skyrocket.”