Column: Napster is giving away the music, but I'm not listening

I've been having a hard time figuring out where I stand on the whole Napster controversy.

Maybe this isn't high on your list of concerns. World hunger, nuclear shipments to Nevada, the starting quarterback situation for the '49ers - these are issues that require pondering.

But Napster? I don't know.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting dilemma for the future of the Internet and therefore, I suppose, the destiny of mankind as we know it.

To recap: Napster is a means of swapping music between computers via the Internet. While there are several means for doing this, Napster is unique in the ability for a music lover to rummage around on the hard drives of other music lovers for whatever piece of music - obscure or popular - they might want to copy.

For example, if you're hankering for a digital copy of "Run, Joey, Run," you log onto Napster and it goes searching through other people's computers for the song. It's sharing on a massive scale.

It's also stealing on a massive scale, according to the music industry and some artists. Instead of buying the music, millions of people are getting it for free.

Aficionados think of this kind of sharing as the true spirit of the Internet. Free files are to the 21st Century what free love was to the '60s. Yeah, it may be morally wrong. But, baby, it feels so right.

I've tried to download a few songs because, hey, I like free stuff as much as anybody. I quickly gave up on the effort for two reasons: It takes forever to download music, and I have no desire to listen to music on my computer.

People who own CD burners have the ability to create their own disks and play them in their cars or on their stereos, but I don't. Basically, I'm waiting for the next wave of technology to see how this whole thing shakes out.

Besides, I'm still working on the previous technology. I have cassette tapes, for crying out loud. And a videocassette recorder.

I find that if I can manage to skip a generation of technological upgrades, I can save a lot of money and headaches. The trick is figuring out when to leap in and when to leap out. Pity those people who bought Betamax video players, for example.

Of course, people have been taping music (and movies on TV, for that matter) for a very long time. This infuriates the people who make their living from selling us this stuff.

Frankly, I can't really figure out the ethical and legal differences between taping "Run, Joey, Run" from your friend's CD and transferring "Run, Joey, Run" digitally between computers. The only true distinction is the ease and availability, and that's been made possible by improvements in technology.

Why the populist uprising? That's easy. The last time the music industry improved its technology - from cassette tapes to CDs - it managed to cut production costs at the same time it raised consumer prices.

In other words, it's cheaper to make a CD than a cassette. And yet they charge us more. Apparently, we're supposed to feel good about that.

''The record companies have done this to themselves and now they're reaping the whirlwind,'' said one long-time music store owner. ''They spent 25 years converting music into a commodity. Now they're upset because people don't consider it an art form.''

Nobody is making money off the Napster innovation. Sure, the value of the company soared, so some stock speculators were able to turn a tidy profit, but it's not a money-making business at this point.

Certainly, the Napster buffs aren't making money. They're just trading freebies.

The complaint is that they're costing sales for the industry. This is an industry in which the five biggest companies - Sony, Warner, BMG, EMI and Universal - rake in more than $14 billion a year in the United States alone on those $16.99 compact discs.

The fact is that these companies control the production, distribution and, to a large extent, price of the music. Napster, created by teenager Shawn Fanning, is a means around that monolith.

The recording companies create a huge demand for a few artists - the Britney Spears of the world - while thousands of bands and singers toil away in obscurity. One way they get heard is via the Internet.

The technology will continue to evolve, and the music industry will figure out a way to get some money out of the deal.

In the meantime, there's a surefire way to keep a lid on the number of people, like me, tempted to download some music for free. I mean, we're basically honest, aren't we? We'd just as soon not be accused of stealing.

So I suggest the music industry do what most businesses would do when threatened by a competitor: Lower the price and improve the service.

(Barry Smith is managing editor of the Nevada Appeal.)


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