Evolve or Die

Having just lost a weekend to Napster, I can say with certainty that the music industry is doomed. And there’s a lesson in its demise to every industry out there.

Napster, the free software that lets users share their libraries of MP3 song files, has the Recording Industry Association of America so incensed that they’ve filed suit against the start-up, demanding $100,000 for every song swapped.

Who knows if the RIAA will win the lawsuit, but they’ve already lost the battle. The Net is a virus, replicating and morphing at incredible speeds. By the time the court battle is done we’ll be several generations beyond Napster.

The music industry is going through dis-intermediation, that process that the Net has gone through so many times, where the middleman gets eliminated. In the end, the record companies will no longer control the music; they will have been made obsolete unless they find a new meaning in life.

Until now, the industry has fumed over pirate music FTP sites, and companies that capitalize on the public’s interest, like MP3.com.

MP3.com had the ingenious idea of letting people have access to their music collection by computer, using My.MP3.com. The idea is to let you store your music collection online, not by recording all of it, but instead by scanning the CDs you have for the number encoded on the disk.

Once My.MP3.com knows you have the actual disk, the service adds that collection of MP3 files to your online library. It would seem to assure that you couldn’t gain access to music you don’t already own.

But that isn’t enough for the RIAA, which is also suing MP3.com.

It’s part of a recurring pattern of futility. Rather than adjusting to and taking advantage of the Net, the RIAA has spent the better part of two years fighting to maintain the status quo. In their world, your only option is to shell out $15 for a CD, then have no right to do anything with it except play it on your stereo.

Record companies lament that, without making $15 per CD, they won’t be able to bring to market new talent. But musicians all over have groused for years over the prices of CDs and how precious little of that money makes its way to them. Check out recent comments from mega-star Elton John.

Which brings me back to my lost weekend. My interest piqued by all the legal battles, I downloaded the latest iteration of Napster and fired it up. There’s a screen in the start-up process that reminds me: “Compliance with copyright law remains your responsibility.”

After pausing oh so briefly to contemplate the warning, I plunged ahead and found that I could search through more than 585,000 songs residing on the 4,400 computers running the software at the time.

Suddenly, I was back at my neighbor’s house as a kid sharing 45s, give or take a few thousand titles. Armed with the bandwidth of my DSL line, I was greedy as hell. You name it, I found it.

My daughter wanted the soundtrack to Toy Story 2. Done. There was the Chris Issak song I couldn’t get out of my head. Got it. Emboldened by the anonymity of my computer screen, I even snagged a few disco hits I would never be caught buying. (You don’t need to tell anyone about that, OK?)

Why would I ever buy an album again? Which is precisely the concern the record execs have. With lawsuit in hand, they expect to shut down Napster and end the threat. And they might kill off Napster, because Napster hooks up hundreds of computers simultaneously through a few servers. So if you nuke the servers, down goes the service.

But there are other programs out there that do that same thing without a central server, instead linking all the computers directly to each other. I’m anxious to see the lawyers going door-to-door telling people what software they can run on their computers.

So how should the industry respond? The same way so many other industries have: by adapting, looking for new opportunities and working to reduce its exposure. After all, this is the same group that has been promising a viable alternative to MP3s for two years, with nothing to show for its effort. Give me smaller, better files with interactivity built in. Heck, give me the lyrics with the songs so I don’t sound like a doofus making up the words.

It all boils down to evolve or die. If you can give me access to all the same songs as Napster, but make it easier, faster or somehow better, then I’ll gladly use the official outlet. And if the service is good enough, I’ll be willing to pay, although not the current outrageous prices.

Otherwise, I’m off to find a bigger hard drive to hold my rapidly expanding music collection.

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