Napster legacy dampens recording industry clout

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The recent news that the recording industry is going for the coup de grâce on Napster should come as no surprise. For all the industry's talk about eventually embracing the Napster peer-to-peer model, its desire to finish off Napster has been as apparent as its lack of ideas for how to deal with this threat to its empire.

But there is an another drama playing out behind the anti-Napster moves. Despite the recording industry's apparent victories, it has already lost the war.

Shaun Fanning's invention of Napster has forever changed the ground rules for artists, the recording industry, and the music audience. In the end, no matter what tactic the industry attempts, the end result will be the same - a shift of power away from the recording industry and toward the music-buying/listening public, and further down the road, to the artists themselves.

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Here are some possible scenarios:

• The recording industry succeeds in killing off Napster, but there are so many "Sons of Napster" out there that legal action continues for years, with the industry always one step behind the 19-year-old software designers creating the new peer-to-peer programs.

Even now, there are several new Napster-like programs that have drawn millions of users, such as Gnutella, Aimster, LimeWire, BearShare, Audiogalaxy Satellite, and Morpheus. And while they have not individually achieved the penetration of Napster, they are collectively approaching its popularity.

Recently, the industry and its agents have been after Internet service providers to shut down the accounts of customers who have been heavy users of Napster or its clones. While not all ISPs are complying - Verizon has refused to take this approach, for instance - some have buckled under the pressure. Yet the tactic will ultimately prove futile - too Big Brother-like. It's also a bad PR move.

• The recording industry jumps online and starts to offer its own music services.

If the industry had been smart, the moment it went after Napster, it would have offered its own online services at a reasonable price. But it didn't, and the result was a proliferation of copy-cat music-sharing programs. Worse, now that the industry is finally gearing up to offer services, it's chosen a model that will prove unpopular at the very least.

The industry wants users to rent songs. Music fans would pay a monthly fee and get access to the music. If they stopped paying the fee, however, the music stops, too. This model may work for DVDs, for instance, where you watch a movie once or twice. But people like to own their music and listen to it again and again. This model is a nonstarter.

• The recording industry finally produces a good model, and teaches people to pay for music online.

Here is the ultimate irony. By teaching people to pay for music online, the recording industry will hasten its own downfall - at least in its present incarnation - by allowing artists to deal directly with customers. Already several artists like Ani DeFranco, Todd Rundgren, Matt Wilson, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Marillion and The Cowboy Junkies have started to offer their music online.

Ultimately, the recording companies will only have one thing to offer - public relations services to promote artists off-line.

This won't happen right away, and the recording industry won't go down without a fight (as we are witnessing). There is just too much money to be made - and lost.

But the genie is out of the bottle.

Tom Regan is the associate editor of csmonitor.com, the electronic edition of The Christian Science Monitor. You can e-mail him at csmbandwidth@aol.com.

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