The New York Times The New York Times Opinion June 7, 2003


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Downloading Music Over the Internet Without Feeling Like a Criminal


Hardly a week goes by without another salvo in the music wars, which have been going on now for years. And week by week the shape of the struggle seems to change.

What set it all off was the emergence in 1999 of Napster, the file-swapping brainstorm that allowed computer users to download free music files. Napster was enormously destabilizing. It undermined the economic logic of $17.99 CD's by making the physical object itself, the CD in its jewel case, irrelevant. The recording industry knew exactly what to make of Napster, calling it theft, plain and simple. Recording artists had a harder time. Many musicians agreed that file swapping was a form of theft, but many of them also argued that their recording contracts were a form of theft, too. At the very least, file swapping became the perfect industry excuse for the prolonged downturn in CD sales, whether it was the real cause or not.

Since then, there have been calls for copy-protected CD's and for government intervention. The recording industry has been fighting for its life with the zeal of desperation and ineptitude. It brought a farcical suit, since dropped, for billions of dollars against four file-swapping students, and it has sought to snoop on private computers. Reports say that it has also planned to hack its way into the machines of file swappers.

The industry knows that its future depends on somehow making music files available for purchase and downloading over the Internet. And yet every pay-per-play music downloading service the recording industry has sanctioned has been notable mainly for clumsiness, proprietary paranoia and a condescending attitude toward its customers.

It's clear what computer-literate music lovers really want: a simple, elegant interface; a broad catalog of music; quick, high-quality downloading; and an approach that doesn't treat the consumer like a criminal wearing a house-arrest shackle. The new Apple music service, the iTunes Music Store, should point the way, especially when it or similar services spread to the Windows platform.

It's ironic that Apple should have introduced the first really successful commercial Internet music service. It was a legendary ad from Apple, after all, that urged computer users to "Rip. Mix. Burn." That was an invitation, borrowed from their own language, for file swappers to copy downloaded songs onto their blank CD's. The slogan now might read: "Rip. Mix. Burn. Within Limits." That's pretty much what the Apple system invites you to do, at a cost of 99 cents a song, or $9.90, and sometimes less, for a full CD. The service's limitations on copying music files kick in well beyond what most of us would consider fair use. This is the market doing its work without government mandates or overly restrictive technologies.

None of this will do away with illegal file swapping. If you believe you're making a political point by downloading music illegally or if you just like free music the chance to buy songs from Apple isn't going to seem very appealing.

But music sales have slumped in part because CD prices are way too high to make sense to ordinary consumers. The assumption has always been that CD sales depend on baby boomers' replacing their collections of vinyl LP's and that the end of that replacement cycle is near. In fact, a lot of baby boomers stopped replacing LP's because CD costs made the whole idea seem futile. This new innovation is almost certainly going to set off a surge of new buying. Some of us will be filling in the CD-size gaps in our collections, but a lot of us will be going back and buying only individual songs. Why buy all of "Wheels of Fire" when you can buy "Crossroads" for 99 cents?

In its all-out war against file swapping, the recording industry has done itself a lot of damage. It has alienated its ideal audience young people who live and breathe music by being way behind the technological curve and by repeatedly sounding as if its main job was law enforcement rather than selling music. You don't have to be a 19-year-old college student to sense that there's something indecent in the concentration of the recording industry over the past decade and in the homogenization of its products.

Once the iTunes Music Store starts selling CD's from small, independent labels, it stands a fair chance of increasing competition for the giant labels. The question is whether the giants will know a good thing when they see it and whether they can keep themselves from pressuring Apple to limit its music listings, as well as the freedom of consumers to copy what they download. The success of this service will ultimately depend on keeping it as independent as possible, serving music listeners, for once, instead of only the needs of the recording industry.

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