Keeping Up With the Napsters

At Pho, a Thousand E-mails a Month Track the Great Digital Debate

"As a newcomer to the list, I really enjoy your collective thought process. In particular, I love that the world is quite obviously changing before our eyes and no one really knows how it's going to play out!" The post, by Jeff Suhy (cyber-Ramones e-mail tag: Pynhead), is one of a thousand generated monthly by the Pho discussion list. Pho is a forum devoted to pop's new flashpoint: MP3s and Napster, the downloading of music now and everything else soon. Bigwigs like Pam Horovitz, the president of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, echo Suhy's sentiments: "The dialogue here is the most helpful I've heard anywhere."

On Pho, Hilary Rosen of the Recording Industry Association of America jousts with Michael Robertson of over the RIAA's lawsuit to stop, the online CD storage service. Marketing VP Liz Brooks defends Napster, the MP3-sharing mechanism designed by teenage programmer (and Pho subscriber) Shawn Fanning that has transformed an abstract debate into an immediate threat. Record label sorts, new-media brass, music lawyers, reporters, artists, and interested onlookers—nearly 700 members—hash out everything from copyright reform to music-related IPO offerings and the latest antipiracy chip.

The truth, though, is that Suhy's right: no one has a clue. Pho grew out of a weekly gathering at a Los Angeles Vietnamese restaurant hosted by Jim Griffin, director of technology at Geffen from 1993 to 1998 and now the head of his own start-ups, Cherry Lane Digital and OneHouse. Griffin was early to advocate for digital music: in his ideal future, we'd have access to all music, all the time, via streaming technology that would pay for itself either through a subscription model, like cable, or an advertising model, like radio. Music can't actually be free, he's famous for proclaiming, but it should "feel free."

illustration: A. Skwish

Increasingly, however, music simply is free: hundreds of thousands of MP3 files are copied daily by users of Napster, Scour, iMesh, Gnutella, and a host of other services that pay no licensing fees. The cost of a recordable drive to duplicate albums on your computer is no greater than a cassette deck and far more potent. The industry has responded with a tizzy of lawsuits: the RIAA, Metallica, and Dr. Dre have sued Napster, with a preliminary ruling for the RIAA just announced; the National Association of Broadcasters has sued the RIAA (over webcasting fees); NARM has sued Sony over hyperlinks inside CDs that divert buyers away from traditional stores. It's a madhouse.

The great digital debate is constantly reshaped by an entrepreneurial explosion: a publicist recently listed 43 separate Web ventures seeking new ways to exploit (sorry, expose) underground bands. Pho, which you can join by e-mailing, keeps on keeping up, not least through the links participants supply: Linux Today, the St. Petersburg Times,, Roll Call, even the Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy of the U.S. State Department. When the list, which dates back to January of 1999, is finally archived, it'll be a historian's dream. Still, the best part is the discussion itself, which starts out civil but regularly steams up.

A few writers stand out. Kevin Doran has promoted underground music for years, hates the major label "cartel," and gleefully awaits "ubiquity": culture without barriers. His compacted jargon-crunching reads like next-century rock criticism at times: "No fantasies that niche items will drive the market, but the cartelier that gets out front exploiting their micro-demo assets captures early-adopter share and critical tag-along tidal trend." True enough, once you unpack it. And Doran is grounded enough to challenge the Pho cynics: he says of the lawsuits, "Have you ever known the US judiciary to ultimately rule AGAINST the engine of American ingenuity and innovation that drives our economy through history?"

David Weekly is another rad: as a Stanford freshman, his pioneering MP3-sharing site was shut down by Griffin, then with Geffen. Now a senior, he recently made headlines by posting the Napster code, then directions for circumventing collegiate bans on the service; a Florida school cut off access to his computer's particular IP address. Selected for a Sexiest Geek Alive ballot, he also pulls out dazzling Jefferson quotes about the sharing of ideas (read: music) as nature's benevolent gift: "No one possesses the less, because every other possess the whole of it." His prediction? "It really is the hackers versus the music industry now, because the hackers are just consumers exercising their rights. . . . This is going to be really interesting to watch. . . . [rolls up sleeves]."

But the industry has its defenders too. Frank Davis, new-media director for Astralwerks, is fond of signing his posts "Your Resident Tool of the Cartel." The hypocrisy of the debate galls him: "I would argue that 'consumer' is the current shield for new-media companies to hide behind when looking to boost their revenue stream based on content for which they do not have an agreement to use." Dean Kay defends songwriters like himself, who'll never be able to compensate for lost sales with the "ancillary revenue streams" that proponents of Napster vaguely predict. "You guys are fighting for the right to steal Ricky Martin and Backstreet Boys records for heaven's sake—now there's a cause likely to ignite Rosa Parks and Kent State-like confrontations."

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