By Leslie Walker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 1999; Page E1
I want my, I want my, I want my MP3.
A generation has spoken. The refrain reverberates across the Internet, from the crowded chat rooms of America Online to the noisy channels of Internet Relay Chat.
Young people are talking back to a music industry that has controlled popular music since the inception of recording technology. They want their music on the Net so they can play it though their personal computers. They want greater control over song sets than CD players offer. Bye-bye, album format. Hello, personal playlist.
There is no stopping them. Using a file-compression technique called MP3, the computer generation has hijacked popular music and moved it to the Net, where people are freely – and often illegally – swapping songs.
Record companies, predictably, are fighting back, but in ways that do little more than create a public relations nightmare for themselves. Rather than reaching out to the MP3 generation and distributing music online, the Big Five that control more than 80 percent of the nation's $12 billion in annual music sales are sending their lawyers after the pirate sites. Until they develop a digital format that blocks copying, they're refusing to distribute songs online.
The futility of trying to stop MP3, though, was quickly apparent during a tour of the Internet music world this week. Thousands of people were discussing MP3 in more than 600 Internet Relay Chat channels devoted to the topic, and many more were posting MP3 messages in 43 dedicated bulletin boards of the Usenet network.
The Lycos search engine has catalogued more than half a million MP3 files available for downloading online. While many are legitimately for sale by independent record labels or retailers, others are pirated copies taken from CDs and put on the Web by people using personal computers.
Typically, people post unlicensed songs online for only a brief time and then drop by chat rooms and bulletin boards to announce the location. Illegal files disappear quickly because bootleggers don't want to be caught.
One 28-year-old Louisiana man who trades under the handle "Mp3Dude" said in an e-mail interview that he believes Web consumers will force the record industry to drop its "inflated" CD prices. "I, myself, will never buy another CD again," he proclaimed.
Andrew McIntyre, a graduate student in Saskatchewan, said he hasn't played a CD on his stereo since he discovered MP3 files two years ago. He prefers playing music through his computer because he can create custom CDs, allowing him to bypass tracks he doesn't like: "The music I do listen to is only the best and my favorites, in the order I choose."
I want my, I want my, I want my MP3.
How widespread is the refrain? "MP3," believe it or not, is one of the terms entered most frequently in Internet search boxes. Lycos spent two months creating a special MP3 search engine after noticing that "MP3" was the No. 2 query – right behind "sex" – in its daily logs. When Lycos debuted its MP3 search engine this month, it logged more than 2 million pages full of MP3 searches in the first 24 hours.
So it was no surprise that the Recording Industry Association of America called Lycos, complaining that its service encourages piracy by making it easier to find bootlegged files. Lycos politely explained its Web philosophy. "Since we are not storing those files, but merely pointing to them on the Internet, it is not our responsibility for assuring their copyright," said Lycos product manager Brian Kalinowski.
The RIAA has announced plans to develop technical standards that will make digital music harder to copy. Until the more protected format is developed – possibly by the end of this year – the major record labels are staying away from online distribution.
But in the meantime, independent record companies and Web newcomers with less to lose from piracy are jumping into MP3 sales. They are forging bonds with music lovers that the Big Five may have trouble breaking later.
"This is the most important grass-roots movement in music since FM radio," said Steve Devick, chief executive of Platinum Entertainment, the largest independent record company.
Platinum licensed more than 13,000 songs to Musicmaker.com, a Web site that announced this week that it will sell MP3 singles for $1 each starting April 1. Like any music company, it's concerned about piracy. But its tactic is to add digital "watermarks" to the files – these allow the origin of copies to be traced. "We think watermarking is kind of like putting your name on a basketball at the playground: It won't prevent it from being stolen, but it will probably deter it," Devick said.
The Big Five companies would do well to reach out quickly to the MP3 generation. Industry executives may think it is mainly geeks who are blasting Internet music from their computer speakers, but Harvard computer science major Mike Vernal says those days are long gone.
"I am most definitely a computer geek," said Vernal, 18, who trades authorized Dave Matthews Band music online. "But what about my girlfriend, who is a social-studies major and knows little about computers? Is she a computer geek?"
Vernal said he sees Harvard students listening to MP3 music through headphones, computer speakers, even stereo systems hooked up to personal computers. His roommates play their MP3 tunes almost continuously through their computers. Many "burn" their own CDs on their computers for playing later in cars and portable units.
"They all have their collection of 90 to 100 songs that no one in the right mind would ever buy – things like '867-5309' and other bad '80s music. Basically, they download music they think is cool but are too lazy to buy the CD – or too cheap."
The MP3 generation may go down in Internet history not for popularizing digital music delivery but for seizing control of the format. That accomplishment underscores the enormous power consumers have to shape the new networked economy.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company