New music format scares the recording industry -- Will the easily shared MP3 change the music world?

Remember that great ’70s music-industry slogan, ”Home taping is killing music”? Needless to say, the art form didn’t buy the farm, despite the fact that just about every pop fan above the poverty level ended up buying a cassette deck. So why does the music biz have its collective knickers in a twist over the online dissemination of tunes?

Until now, pirating provided minimal temptation; even hackers preferred paying 18 bucks for the latest Dave Matthews Band album over wasting hours downloading tinny counterfeit songs for free. But significant advances in sound files — chiefly the compression technology known as MP3 — have resulted in an underground online swap mart that is growing exponentially, especially on college campuses. Want the complete — and completely illegal — Beatles in one humongous file? It’s probably out there, if you know where to look.

As long as MP3 tunes could be played only on computers, the music industry held back, pushing alternative technologies like the current LiquidAudio and a2b music formats — both of which (surprise) make copying extremely difficult. But when Diamond Multimedia announced plans to sell a pager-size portable device that can play back MP3 files anywhere you can take a Walkman, the Recording Industry Association of America leaped into attack mode, suing the company on Oct. 16. Surprisingly, after granting a restraining order, a federal judge decided last month that Diamond’s $200 Rio PMP 300 player could go on sale before Thanksgiving after all, though an RIAA appeal ensures further court action.

”I’m not being a Chicken Little about this,” says RIAA president and CEO Hilary Rosen. ”We’re just saying that if you can imagine a single person in an apartment or dorm room uploading a song or album onto a bulletin board that will then get 20,000 or 50,000 downloads a week, that person can end up having the same effect as pirates in China’s manufacturing plants, unwittingly.”

What the industry wants, says Rosen, are ”technical standards that protect artists’ rights.” That means introducing technology into MP3 files so they can’t be copied more than once, or at all. ”The music industry’s natural reaction is to put bigger and bigger locks on it,” says Michael Robertson, president of, the premier site for MP3 players and (legal) sound files. ”There’s not one example on the Net of any lock-and-key system having any success. It didn’t work with software, didn’t work with newsprint, and it’s not gonna work with music.” Says Rosen: ”The thing about music versus software — not that it’s okay to pirate software — is that there’s only one version of Born to Run. They’re not going to come out next year with Born to Run 2.0.”

Diamond marketing director Lorraine Comstock says RIAA’s fears are ”obviously a legitimate concern” but adds, ”I’ve done searches on Yahoo!, and it looks to me like they’ve done a good job shutting down illicit MP3 sites…. But MP3 itself is great for independent artists…. I think [the suit] is a stalling tactic…. [Some of the major labels] aren’t ready to enter the market.” But when kids take their new Rios to the ski slopes come Christmas, will they be playing their local garage band or bootleg Garbage? One thing is increasingly clear: Legally or illicitly, the music buffs of tomorrow will be born to run rock & roll through their PCs.