'Don't call me a pirate. I'm an online fan.'

One girl's downloading habits reveal the gulf between the music industry and teens.

Whitney, a Los Angeles 16-year-old, doesn't look a thing like Johnny Depp. And she says that, no matter what Hollywood might think, she and her friends are hardly pirates.

Sure, Whitney (who asked that her last name not be used) downloads songs for free every week on the Internet. And she'd download movies this way if her computer were fast enough. (She tried it once, and the file was so big it completely froze her computer.)

But she maintains that this doesn't make her the scary criminal conjured by the word pirate. The Recording Industry of America disagrees - to say the least - and has announced it is going to go after individuals such as Whitney, with lawsuits starting as early as next month. The RIAA has set itself a herculean task: If Whitney and her friends are any guide, the industry has failed utterly to convince this generation of teens of the merits of its case.

What has emerged through numerous interviews in person and over the phone is the voice of a new generation that says the industry is out of touch and needs to get with the times - stop charging so much for CDs, move its business online where millions of consumers already are, and stop trying to make criminals out of people who love its product.

"I have a lot of respect for artists, and I love music," says Whitney, a polite, fresh-faced young woman who possesses the unusual ability to talk easily with adults. She adds that she believes musicians should make a profit for their work.

The RIAA is going the lawsuit route for several reasons. For one, the courts have refused to outlaw the file-sharing technology that enables the widespread digital downloading. And the success of recent lawsuits against four college students who were running small file- sharing services off their college computer system has given the industry a tangible target. And with losses of up to $300 million annually, it's anxious to recoup.

"We just came to the conclusion, after significant testing, that all the messaging in the world won't work if there are no consequences," says Mark Oppenheim, senior vice president of business and legal affairs for the RIAA. "People don't change their behavior because they're told something is wrong. They change because they're told and they realize there are consequences."

But Whitney and her friends say they aren't afraid of being sued, given the sheer number of people who download digital content from the Internet (the most popular file sharing software, KaZaA, has been downloaded more than 270 million times). Besides, she says, she's not doing it to make a profit. She hasn't set up a file-sharing service in her living room, like those that the RIAA has promised to ferret out in its next round of legal tactics.

Actually, says RIAA's Mr. Oppenheim, she has. Software for KaZaA and other such sites automatically turns a computer into a server - whether or not the downloader intends to assume that role.

While Whitney isn't fazed, file-swapping overall dipped by 15 percent on KaZaA the first week of July, after the RIAA issued its warning. That amounts to about 1 million fewer users, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, although it remains to be seen if people will be warned away permanently.

Whitney, for one, says she can't imagine giving up file swapping. A dancer and drama student, Whitney says she has downloaded about 20 songs a week for the past few years. She learned her techniques from friends, and began by using a service called audiogalaxy. She switched to KaZaA because it has so many tunes. Her onboard jukebox now sports 1,192 songs.

The teen's tastes run the gamut from hip-hop to blues. Some of her favorite groups include Coldplay, the Strokes, and Radiohead (she is not, she says, a country music fan). She got started downloading in eighth grade because she wanted to listen just to the songs she liked. "I don't think it's fair to have to pay $20 just to listen to the one or two songs I like," she says.

Music labels, at least partly in response to this favorite justification of downloaders, have reinstituted the CD single and have discounted the price of many CDs to as low as $8.99. Some artists, such as Metallica and John Mayer, are also offering bonus tracks online to folks who purchase their new CDs. And the band Guster had a surprise for anyone who downloaded its album on KaZaA: The vocals had been replaced by someone meowing along to the music.

When Whitney first began downloading, she never thought about what the music industry would think of her actions. After all, Whitney says, everyone was doing it. And more important, she says, it never stopped her from buying a CD. "I do buy a lot of CDs," she says. "I never download a whole album that I don't already own. It's just really convenient to be able to make a whole mix on a CD out of a bunch of different artists with only your favorite songs."

Besides, she says, she is extremely loyal to the musicians she likes. "The artists that I really like that I download, I buy the CD." She owns more than 200 CDs and says she buys new ones all the time. This is true for her friends as well, she says.

Her computer system isn't particularly state-of-the-art. She uses an IBM PC running Windows 98. If anything, she says, she is far behind the sophisticated technology and tastes of many of those who download even more than she does. She says the entertainment industry should take its cue from the fact that she is not on the cutting edge. The industry needs to go where the mainstream consumer has gone - online. A really good pay site, she says, "is their best option."

Pay sites, of course, do exist. But they've had limited impact, in part, says Whitney, because they're so limited. The most promising new service, Apple's iTunes works only on Macintosh computers, which represent just 3 percent of the national home computer market. Other services have gaping holes in their listings, such as no original Beatles tunes or no songs by Madonna or the Rolling Stones. This would be like a department store without any dresses or shoes, say users like Whitney, who have tried the pay sites and found them wanting. Although she has never paid for a download, if a good site came along, Whitney says 99 cents sounds like the right amount to pay per tune. After some mental math, though, she is hesitant to say she would pay almost $1,200 for the collection of free songs she now has on her computer.

Whitney's mother, who doesn't live with her, understands little about computers. She and her father have discussed it, but he has not tried to stop her. She says this is pretty typical for all her friends, with a single exception - a friend whose father works in the music industry, who has forbidden anyone in the house to use file sharing sites.

"She asked me to download for her," says Whitney. "So, I made her a mix CD, and she realized that downloading was the only way to get what she wanted, so now she downloads her own stuff."

Once the lawsuits go ahead, more parents may find themselves taking a sterner approach. The minimum damages the court can assess is $750 per song; the maximum $150,000. Multiply that by 1,192, and well, you get the idea.

Whitney says the pirate paradigm gives an unfair picture of her and her crew. "We aren't trying to wiggle out of paying for what we like," she says. But "it's hard to imagine not being able to [download music] since I've gotten so used to it."

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