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Not that any of that matters to the kid who just wants to download the latest Aerosmith single. But from those not-so-humble beginnings came the standard that has turned teenagers like Abe into the bogeymen or bogeyboys of the music business.
When you walk into the Venice apartment where Abe has lived by himself since late last year, you see the beach out his window, you see a surfboard leaning against the wall, you see the smiling mugs of Abes family and friends gazing down from a bulletin-board collage. What you do not see is a collection of CDs stacked neatly in a melon-tinged IKEA CD tree. You dont even see CDs piled frat-house-style on the floor. There are no CDs anywhere. Yet music blares out of Abes powerful speakers, which are plugged into his computer with a standard 15-inch computer monitor, and the one chair in the place facing the screen.
"Ive never spent a dime on commercial CDs," Abe says. Nonetheless, his music collection totals "50 to 100 regular CDs worth of pirated mp3s in various digital archives." And he can update his stash with fresh sounds whenever he feels like it.
As Abe clicks his way onto the Internet, he makes it clear that the learning curve involved in becoming a serious mp3 collector is not high.
His first stop is a chat room, where Net junkies type back and forth, gabbing in text-only format about whatevers on their minds. But chat rooms are, believe it or not, useful for functions more intriguing than freewheeling debates over last nights X-Files repeat. Chatters can send any kind of computer file from machine to machine through the Internet.
The whole time Abe is online, music from the mp3 collection on his 5-gigabyte hard drive pulses through his computers speakers. A tiny box nestles in the bottom left corner of his monitor his mp3 playback softwares graphical interface displaying the current songs title and playing time. The onscreen look of the player software mimics the façade 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") hed like to join. Abe types the name of the channel hes 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 its the much-touted "anonymity of the Net." The list is a dozen names long. Abe is slightly discouraged. Its 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 dont 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 doesnt have to do anything might not even know whats 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 Abes 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.)