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Napster, meanwhile, is developing a new version of its old peer-to-peer service, which will eventually incorporate both MP3s and a proprietary format of its own. They're also working on a system that will analyze sound files' waveforms to make sure they're legit before they can be downloaded. At the moment, the new Napster is in a semi-public "beta version," available only to a group of former Napster users, and not to the press. (Goyer claims it's nowhere near as sleek and efficient as the original version.) The current scuttlebutt is that this Napster won't launch for real until it can license the major labels' catalogs, which won't happen for at least nine months; two weeks ago, Napster laid off members of its indie-licensing department.
Peer-to-peer music trading may never be as big an issue as its opponents fear. If you're downloading illicit MP3s on a significant scale, you probably have (1) a very fast Net connection, (2) not enough money to buy CDs, and (3) lots of time to wrestle with recalcitrant software, hardware, and networks. Which means you're probably a college student. At a certain intersection of disposable income and spare time, it makes much less sense to go through the hassle of downloading an album's worth of songs, burning a CD, and printing artwork than it does to buy the damn thing.
The labels' current PR offensive recalls their "home taping is killing music" campaign from their last slump, 20 years ago. The movie industry went through the same sort of anxiety attack when VCRs were introduced; likewise, in 1942, the head of the American Federation of Musicians declared that musicians who made phonograph records were "playing for their own funerals." Each time, the entertainment business changed, but it didn't collapse.
Even some major industry players are equivocal about file trading now. Artemis Records' Danny Goldberg, formerly the CEO of Warner Bros. Records, says, "I think a lot of it is good for the business. If people are literally trading songs, it's positive: They're turning people on to music. As long as copyright infractions stay illegal and it's a guerrilla thing, it's less of a problem than if you can get an IPO and advertise on the Super Bowl, which is where it was going."
So what will actually emerge from the chaos? One extreme scenario is the anarchist-utopian ideal, in which "the recording industry, as we know it, is history" (per the Times Magazine): Copyright is wiped out altogether, the music industry's middlemen are eliminated, musicians disseminate their work for free, and the grateful fans pay them directly. That's not likely to happen. The other extreme is the consumer's nightmare: The majors install copy protection in every functional piece of hardware and software, shut out their smaller competitors, and collect royalties from every playback of every piece of music forever. That's not likely to happen either, if only because the technology industry is much bigger than the entertainment industry, and has more lobbying power. Philips, the electronics company that co-invented CD technology, already plans to pull the "compact disc" logo from copy-protected discs, and wants to make labels that manufacture them add warning stickers.
The best bet is that the whole kerfuffle will blow over, the same way the home-taping issue did years ago. The major labels will offer their own downloads in a form that the market demands and basically ignore the peer-to-peer underground. Young people will keep exchanging sound files with each other, then graduate and get jobs and crave physical artifacts and pay for most or all of their music.
Some experienced file traders, in fact, are convinced that peer-to-peer's best days are behind it. Kunal Gupta, for example, was once another "Little Johnny." A 19-year-old Columbia first-year with just under 3400 MP3s on his hard drive, he's barely downloaded anything in the last three years. In the days before Napster, he says, MP3 traders relied on a client-server program called Hotline, whose users would keep special and rare recordings on their servers to represent the music they cared about most; you'd get to know and trust their taste over time. Shared folders in the post-Napster world, though, are "basically a mandatory consequence of the granted right to leech any media you desire at will," Gupta says; high-powered search engines turn file sharing into anonymous immediate gratification. "MP3s really had a golden age," he says, "and I honestly have nostalgic memories of those long-gone years."
photo: Steve Shaw
We compared some baby Naps and the new major-label download services, and tried looking for the same songs on each of them: Kylie Minogue's ubiquitous "Can't Get You Out of My Head," Cybotron's 1983 proto-electro jam "Clear," and the recent bubblegum flop "I'm Gonna Blow Your Mind" by Carly Hennessy (whose album, Ultimate High, sold fewer than 400 copies after MCA spent $2.2 million promoting her).
Easily the champion among current file-trading services, it's got a small stand-alone application called Satellite that does the actual downloading work while you search for files using your Web browser. Copyright holders can ask for their songs to be blocked, for all the good that does: A search on "kylie can't" yielded 861 variations on the title, and although "Can't Get You Out of My Head" by Kylie Minogue was unavailable, "Kylie Minoque" [sic] by Can't Get You Out of My Head did just fine. (Cybotron got 66 hits, Carly 11.) Still, after The New York Times reported that users were trading zipped files containing an entire album and its scanned artwork, searches for "zip" started turning up zilch. A Mac version of Satellite is available; it's not officially authorized, but Audiogalaxy founder Michael Merhej says, "We don't discourage its use."