By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The whole time Abe is online, music from the mp3 collection on his 5-gigabyte hard drive pulses through his computer’s speakers. A tiny box nestles in the bottom left corner of his monitor — his mp3 playback software’s graphical interface — displaying the current song’s title and playing time. The onscreen look of the player software mimics the faÃ§ade of a CD player.
"An mp3 player is a really simple piece of software," he says. "All it does is decode the file and send it to your speakers."
The most popular mp3 player is known as WinAmp, a piece of software produced by a small Arizona company called Nullsoft and sold for $10 as shareware (i.e., you pay on the honor system) over the Internet. Nullsoft claims that WinAmp is downloaded at a rate of 120,000 copies per day. WinAmp is just one of numerous mp3 players, most of them free.
Abe fires up his "chat" software with a mouse click. A small box appears, asking which room (or "channel") he’d like to join. Abe types the name of the channel he’s looking for: "#mp3cablemodem." In there, he figures, people are willing to send each other their mp3 files. Another small box opens up, displaying the list of people on the #mp3cablemodem channel. They all use aliases — it’s the much-touted "anonymity of the Net." The list is a dozen names long. Abe is slightly discouraged. It’s early on a weekday afternoon. A sluggish hour.
He types another simple command, which goes something like "/xdcc user/channel list." Plain English translation: "Anyone got any mp3 files?"
His computer instantly sends the message to the computer of each user in the chat group. Abe has no idea who or where any of these people are. None of them knows who he is either, but their computers don’t care. In about five seconds: BLIP — BLIP — BLIP! Window after window pops up, cascading down his screen one over the next, each about the size of an index card. Each window is an automatic reply from a different computer (the person manning that computer doesn’t have to do anything — might not even know what’s going on), a list of mp3 files on its hard drive. Abe now faces about 100 song titles, and he has his pick.
Abe slides back from his desk a bit and sets the mouse aside, deciding. Shopping, sort of. Reaching back to the keyboard, he punches in another quick command, and the remote computer starts transmitting instantaneously. A minute or two later the mellifluous tones waft from Abe’s speakers. "I get knocked down . . .!!"
There are various alternate methods of finding and downloading mp3 songs. The Usenet newsgroups — discussion forums started years ago for scientists and academics to debate theories and share information, but now best known as a repository for a staggering selection of pornography — contain several groups devoted to mp3 downloads. (Try alt.binaries.sounds.mp3 for a start.) The newsgroups can be accessed with a (usually) no-charge piece of software called a newsreader. (Netscape Communicator comes with a newsreader built in. Netscape is, itself, free.)
On the World Wide Web, a number of search engines are devoted to nothing but seeking out illegal mp3 files. Most of the mp3 search sites have been under-the-radar operations run by teenagers. Then, in early February, none other than Lycos — the second most visited site on the Internet, which is now in the process of selling itself to Barry Diller’s USA Networks — rolled out a search feature devoted to mp3 (http://mp3.lycos.com).
Piracy has never been easier.
As the spread of mp3 proved increasingly ineluctable, the RIAA adopted a kinder, gentler stance toward the piracy problem. Last December 15, inside the Sony Building in midtown Manhattan, the RIAA assembled the aging bosses of the Big Five on a single stage, each clad in remarkably similar charcoal-gray business attire. On steel-and-black chairs, beneath the klieg lights, the five men flanked RIAA chief exec Hilary Rosen, also dressed darkly, distinguished largely by the fact that her hair was brunette rather than thinning. The purpose of this Lollapalooza for suits: to unveil the RIAA’s SDMI project.
Rosen made it through her opening statement without dropping the word piracyonce. Instead, she announced, "Today, the recording industry is embracing the digital marketplace with new enthusiasm and new optimism."
The cause for optimism? The executives announced that they were forming a consortium — under the auspices of the RIAA — to create a single standard for downloadable music that will be (supposedly) immune to piracy and will allow record labels to actually sell music in the form of Internet downloads without worrying about illegal copying. They plan, perhaps unrealistically, to have this technological innovation in place by the end of the year.
"The idea is for the security features, the encryption technologies and all those other things that protect the content, to ensure that those do not interfere with the consumer’s ability to gain convenient access," says the RIAA’s Cary Sherman. "Security should be invisible to the consumer."