Every couple of decades an interesting phenomenon affects the music industry.  There always comes a point where the technology available to consumers simply makes a quantum leap of sorts, catching us all off guard.  When it happens, record label executives instinctively start crying “chicken little”.

It happened when the FM radio became popular and later again when the audio cassette hit the market.  When the Digital Audio Tape (DAT) was close to completion the Radio Industry Association of America (RIAA) rallied its troops t make sure that consumers never had the chance to enjoy that device.  They, however, rely heavily upon it in both the recording process and live performances.

The most recent of the “leaps” occurred late last year.  Two teenage college students, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, launched the MP3 sharing program called Napster and the current paradigm for how the industry conducts it’s business was rendered obsolete overnight.

For those of you who are familiar with Napster and all of the issues surrounding it, we apologize for the following oversimplification.  For all of you others here is the Cliff’s Notes version of things.

Fanning and Parker were attending Boston’s Northeastern U. when they decided to do something about the relatively non-existent way to easily locate and retrieve music (MP3 files) via the internet.  After an enormous amount of work the two came up with a simple, user-friendly program to do just that.

How easy is this thing to use you say?  All one has to do is to go to the company’s site and download the Napster software onto your computer.  Once you establish a user name and log into the system just search for the songs you want by artist or title name.  The program scans the available songs of any and all users that are currently online and populates them in a nice tidy list for your perusal.  Then all you do is point & click.  Minutes later they are all yours.

And it’s all free.  Free like “fell off the back of a truck in Brooklyn”.  And that is what has the RIAA in an uproar.

Needless to say the site’s popularity spread like wildfire.  It launched in November of ’99 and by February Indiana University officials noticed two-thirds fo their internet bandwidth was routinely dedicated to the site.  Things got so bad that the school had no choice but to install a filter to block the service.  Since then over 100 other colleges and universities have had to do the same.

In an effort to bulkhead against this hurricane called Napster the RIAA filed a motion to shut down what it calls the “music pillaging website”.  Lawsuits form Metallica and Dr. Dre quickly followed.  Metallica, who ironically enough attributes their meteoric rise to fame to underground mixtapes fans used to circulate (the pre-historic version of file sharing perhaps?), has had mixed success in the courts over the last few months.

Initially the band coerced Napster into banning over 300,000 users who had downloaded their music via the site, citing the enigmatic Digital Millenium Copyright Act.  Unfortunately for the group, Napster reinstated the exiled users when Metallica failed to file suit against each and every offender withing ten days, as required by the same piece of legislation.

Dr. Dre’s lawsuit comes on the heels of one of my favorite “music biz” moments.  His Aftermath Record’s label was forced to release Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP weeks ahead of schedule when an L.A. radio station downloaded the single “The Real Slim Shady” from Napster and put it into heavy rotation.

In an effort to fend off the packs of rabid lawyers nippin’ at their heels the company has brought in some big guns of their own, most notably one David Boies.  Boies is the lawyer that spear-headed the U.S. Governments efforts to break up Microsoft.  Rut-ro-raggy.

He argues that not only are his clients not responsible for the actions of the people who use their site, but that the five companies that control 90% of the recorded music sales in the U.S. are in violation of federal anti-trust laws.

Simply put, it’s fixin’ to get ugly.

Copycat sites are popping up like zits on prom night, artists are divided over whether or not they support Napster and potential music customers are not altogether happy with being labeled as “thieves”.  Those crazy kids Fanning and Parker are even sponsoring a free concert tour headlined by Limp Bizkit and Cypress Hill in a brilliant public relations move.

As it stands now, the laws governing these issues are entirely too vague to offer hope for an immediate resolution.  The legislators in Congress are moving, albeit slowly, in an effort to avoid stifling the boom internet based companies have put into the economy.  The task of doing so while protecting the artists rights seems to be a daunting one.

What happens next is anybody’s guess.  I personally envision a future that finds us paying a modest monthly fee, five bucks sounds about right, in order to get our downloading fix.

But one thing is certain.  Things will never be the same again.

To underscore this point I will leave you with the following:  The last six months have seen something unprecedented.  For the first time in the existence of the World Wide Web sex related files were NOT the most researched/retrieved ones on the Internet.  If that isn’t a sobering fact then I don’t know what the hell is.


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