Burn This
How the internet's changing the face of music
By Noel Murray

It's 1985, and a 14-year-old boy has just received his first shipment from the Columbia House Record & Tape Club: 12 albums for a penny, including Duran Duran's Rio, Thomas Dolby's The Golden Age of Wireless, The Police's Ghost in the Machine, and Billy Joel's The Stranger. The box arrives on a Saturday afternoon, and late into the evening on Sunday, the boy is still working his way through the package, playing each record from start to finish, savoring every song. Overnight, his music collection has doubled.

Now it's 1999, and another 14-year-old boy has just received his first CD burner. He hooks it up to the family computer and goes online to find some of his favorite modern-rock songs, like Orgy's cover of "Blue Monday," and an Everlast song whose title he won't remember two years later. In those ensuing two years, this boy will burn about 500 CDs, some for his personal collection, some for friends.

Two years later, the same kid has given away or lost all 500 of those CDs. Asked about that very first mix CD he made, he says, "I threw it away... no reason."

This is happening all over the country. Where young people once expectantly waited for packages in the mail or made eager trips to the record store, now they simply log on to the internet and download the songs they want.

But while it's debatable whether the computer age is as pervasive as the predominately white, middle-class American media think it is - statistics show that households with computers are still in the minority - there's no denying that it's only a matter of time before the potential of a wired world trickles down to almost everyone.


Most pertinently, the struggle between the content providers and the consumers - the latter of whom have become accustomed to receiving the wares of the former for free, thanks to the efforts of certain entrepreneurial radicals - may well have been resolved, by treaty or by legal obliteration.

The biggest music news of 2001's first half was the court ruling against Shawn Fanning, who created a service called Napster, which allows web surfers to connect with select members of the online community who have converted the hottest new CDs into easily transmitted digital files.

Before Napster, the buzz was around, a website that was supposedly providing the same easy access to ripped-off tunes. But now has been seen by the music industry as more of a godsend. The MP3 technology may be what is allowing a clean transfer of pirated music files, but is more concerned with providing songs by artists who want their work to be swapped around. And has expanded its service, providing a way for artists with no label affiliation to sell made-to-order CDs to fans and strangers, and even paying the artists - ASCAP-style - for each download their song receives.

So which is it? Will the availability of free music online mean that musicians get their work in the hands of more people, and thus potentially make more money? Or will a generation raised on free music find no reason to spend more than the cost of their power and phone bills - and a 49-cent blank CD - to hear what they want to hear?

Will the record industry collapse?

Those are the questions that keep overpaid record company execs up nights, but there's an even more interesting series of questions for those of us civilians following the fluctuations of the music business.

Will the rising generation relate to music differently than the generations before? Will their tastes be broader, less dictated by radio and MTV? Will they be more fickle, burning out on songs before they've even listened to them all the way through once?

Will anyone ever again get excited by the idea of 12 records for a penny?

Alias "Happy Cow"

Meet Happy Cow. He's the second 14-year-old - now 16 - whom we met at the top of this story. Happy Cow was a name he adopted when he became a "courier"-someone who helps distribute pirated files on the internet - and since his real name might conceivably get him in trouble with the authorities, the nickname will have to suffice. He's a bright, good-looking kid, the son of a computer-savvy businessman who has a job helping to maintain the network for one of his city's biggest employers. Happy Cow has been into music off and on since he was a toddler, letting his interest wane when other interests took hold - video games, movies, sports, and, most enduringly, computers.

He plans to work in some sort of computer-related field when he gets out of school, perhaps in web design, and he plans to make money.

When he got his first CD burner in April 1999, he began taking orders from classmates at his private school. He currently charges $5 to burn a CD with a mix of songs or $3 to burn an artist's entire CD, which takes less time and searching. Happy Cow did well for a while, but "now everybody has CD burners," he says, "so my business has kinda disappeared."

As a hobby, not for any compensation, Happy Cow set himself up as a courier. The hierarchy of Napster-aided music-swapping works this way: There are "rippers," who get hold of the newest stuff - often via promotional discs sent to radio stations and newspapers - and then encode the files for uploading onto a website. Couriers go looking for those files, and when they find them, they transmit them to as many other websites as fast as they can. In exchange for their diligence, they get the respect of their peers and often get tipped off as to where to find new music first.

Happy Cow's favorite discs that get ripped are the promo-only modern rock CDs that get sent to radio stations, with 16 or so new cuts from an assortment of acts. "They're edited [for content]," he gripes, "But that's only a real problem with the urban radio promo-onlys."

In Happy Cow's experience, "The demand is for unreleased rap, mainly. I ripped U2's Achtung Baby - nobody wanted that. There's no market. People aren't going to waste their time, their bandwidth, and their drive space on old alternative stuff."

And even new alternative stuff doesn't go over big with his circle. Demand-wise, "Limp Bizkit's biggest is comparable to a mediocre rap release."

Asked if he feels bad about pirating music and taking money away from the musicians he likes, Happy Cow freely confesses that he does. "If I had the money, I would [buy the CDs]. I used to prefer to have a real copy. I would prefer to support the artist."

But he knows that he isn't the type to take care of his music. Most of his current collection is "all basically just put by the parking brake in my car. If one gets scratched up, I just burn it again. The lifestyle that I have, a $16 CD wouldn't last long at all."

That's backed up by a look around his room, which features fluid-caked fast-food containers, dirty clothes, and stacks of CDs that have toppled into the middle of the floor. Happy Cow says that he recently stepped onto a pile of un-cased Dave Matthews Band CDs and snapped them all, and the last CD he actually bought - one of his favorites, by Linkin Park - he lost a few months after he got it. Will he shell out money to buy new DMB and Linkin Park discs? He shakes his head no, saying that he'll just find them online. "I've already paid for it once," he says. "I don't deserve to pay for it again."


L.A.-based industry player Noah Stone - former director of the grassroots organization Artists Against Piracy, now the executive director of the more powerfully connected Recording Artists Coalition - believes that the Happy Cows of the world are only going to grow in number over the next decade. Although he doesn't begrudge them their ingenuity in getting music for free, Stone feels that something has to be done to ensure that musicians continue to make money off their craft and that Happy Cow continues to be a satisfied customer.

The argument often given by the apologists for piracy is that the music industry has kept prices artificially high for years, charging an average of $16 for compact discs that cost a fraction of that to produce (recording costs and marketing inclusive). Stone believes that this defense is simple justification, derived after online piracy became widespread. "I don't think that people were complaining too much until they could get it for free," he says.

Nevertheless, Stone does sympathize with that argument, if only because he feels that the record industry has given too little of that padded profit to the artists who make it possible.

Focusing on the future is what led Stone to his new post at Recording Artists Coalition, which has already testified in front of Congress - via co-founder Don Henley - about copyright issues. But the group is just as concerned with making sure that the music industry keeps the artist in mind as times change.

Thinking about his own entertainment lifestyle has made Stone realize that the traditional metaphors for online music distribution - that it's like radio, and that people who download pirated songs are like regular radio listeners, scanning across the dial - just doesn't wash. "Radio is extremely promotional," he says. "But it sells records; it doesn't cannibalize sales. As I see it, [the internet] is not a promotional tool, it's the whole ball game. Ten years from now, it may be the only way that people get music."

Rob Hulsman, former drummer for Taildragger and Nine Lb. Hammer (now playing with the Devil Gods in Boston) has a different take, "I think digital distribution will ultimately be the musicians' friend." He believes "It will be difficult for many to think beyond the 'box' of the current distribution system, but in time this will put more power into the hands of the musicians themselves. The fervor with which the monolithic record companies are fighting this tips the hat to who is currently raking in the lion's share of profits from music distribution."

Access Unlimited

What's important is that, as the technology develops and becomes more widespread, musicians are given their fair shake.

Robby Cosenza of Lexington's Pontius Co Pilot, feels that " the more accessible the music is, the better. Speaking from a musician's standpoint, it can certainly have a major impact on all aspects of business including booking and promotion. It's not so bad to get email from some girl in Denmark who wants to know where she can pick up the record." When asked to further pontificate on possible problems he says, "I don't have issues with copyright laws, or 'Is Napster responsible for poor in-store record sales this quarter?' I don't have those concerns, because I don't deal with things on that level. The internet, in my opinion, can only benefit independent music, simply by making it more accessible."

The Washington, D.C.-based Future of Music Coalition is at work to ensure that musicians, especially independent musicians not signed with a major label, are compensated as they deal with the constant changes in the music industry. "For too long," the group's manifesto points out, "musicians have had too little voice in the manufacture, distribution, and promotion of their music on a national and international level and too little means to extract fair support and compensation for their work. Manufacturing and distribution monopolies concentrate the power of over 90 percent of music sold into the hands of five labels. With huge media mergers continuing to consolidate the decisions of what to play and promote, it becomes more and more difficult for artists to gain exposure through the few remaining coveted radio spots."

In this light, Future of Music executive director Jenny Toomey considers the Napster question "a red herring," at least as far as independent musicians are concerned. "In this environment, it is impossible to reduce the value of peer-to-peer file trading to one that is black and white or good and bad," she writes on the group's website.

"If there are so many people using this technology," she says, referring to Napster and Napster-like services, "then the regular distribution channels are not serving them and not serving the artist." She's worried about "the effects on free speech" when the government gets involved in regulating content, and she sees the Napster case as another example of shutting something down rather than trying to make it work.

"It's easier to find a way to make a file-trading network legal," she insists.

"Instead of putting out more trash cans, we're licensing more litter police... it's just not the most logical way."

Art and Commerce

When asked to comment on how the outpouring of free music on the web has affected sales in his store, Steve Baron, the owner of CD Central, believes that "The bottom line is that it's hard to draw any definite conclusions about how distribution of music on the internet is affecting sales at traditional music stores. One would assume that it would hurt sales, but on the other hand we have plenty of customers who get music online from Napster and the like, yet they are still customers."

Baron speculates, "Online distribution in a sense can function like radio in that it gives people a way to sample music or discover new artists before they make the decision to go out and buy the entire CD."

From a personal standpoint, Ray Smith (lead singer of Household Saints) believes " people will always want to be able to walk into a store, pick up the record, look at the packaging, buy it, rip it open, and read the liner notes while they give it the first listen. People will always want to be able to hold the recording in their hands and just look at it. Can you imagine buying Sgt. Pepper's for the first time and not being able to do that? It's a sad thought."

The internet also gives indie bands a chance that conventional market forces might not.

Since not every musician can be signed to a major label or be lucky enough to have a national distribution deal, Baron says "it's very hard for them to get on radio or into record stores, even if the stores want to carry their music. But almost every musician can set up a website and reach consumers directly. The web's value is the opportunity it presents for artists to reach listeners beyond their local region."

David Hooper, who sells promotional tips to independent musicians via his website,, is upbeat about the money-making prospects afforded by the internet. He believes that given a choice, Americans would rather pay a reasonable fee for their entertainment in exchange for easy access. "Never underestimate the laziness of the American people," he laughs. "We can't even return our videos on time."

Hooper has even thought of the best way to get people to pay for the music they can now get for free: "The average American spends $4.50 a month on music. It's a $40-billion-a-year industry. Well, what if we gave everybody access to everything in a stream for $12.95 a month. We've tripled our money! Give it to 'em on a cell phone. Once we make it idiot-proof - once we put it on TV, say - that'll be the future. Make it cordless, put it in cars, into gyms...."

Perhaps offers the best model of this, offering free downloads for the curious as well as a service that allows users to pay a nominal fee to have a real CD by a band they like. Or perhaps recorded music will always be free and musicians will find some new way to make money at their trade, just as the old bandleaders learned to stop relying on radio and TV performances for their daily bread.


When asked what the future holds for music distribution, Smith responds "There are people who forecast that, in the near future, we'll just buy our music digitally and download the files onto our hard drives, but I personally don't think that the masses will ever go for this."

But just as artists need to create, so do consumers need to consume. So isn't it logical to assume that lowering the barriers between the two can only be beneficial to both? If artists withhold their work for fear of not getting paid, then the consumer will offer whatever money it takes to get access to it. If the online music distribution revolution means that record labels are no longer viable entities, it doesn't necessarily mean that the music business shuts down. It may just mean that it reconfigures.

The court ruling against Napster hasn't stopped online piracy, since the bulk of file-swapping is far enough underground that it takes insider knowledge to "get the goods," so to speak. But obviously, driving the act further underground assures that the casual web surfer won't find it quite so easy to steal. Happy Cow, for one, says that he can still find stuff, but it's not what it used to be (and besides, his interest is waning).

What has happened, though, is that the very fear of piracy has raised all manner of new questions for the music industry - about how to make money off music in the 21st century, and about whether the artists are ever going to see any of that money. Even in the days when a music fan could get excited about 12 records for a penny, the great deal was made possible because record clubs paid a lower royalty rate to the musicians whose work they sold so cheaply. To most artists, getting ripped off by pirating fans is nothing new - they've been getting ripped off by their labels for years. And there's a fear that the music industry's drive to stamp out piracy is really a drive to control the potential revenue stream from online music, and to assure that it stays at a trickle for the music-makers.

So what happens next may be up to the consumer. If the record business doesn't eventually start charging more reasonably, the next generation of music buyers may increasingly start to look to the internet for its music.

At the same time, musicians will realize they don't need record labels when they can go directly to the fan. And if that happens, there may be a true revolution in what people listen to, how they get it, and who counts the money at the end of the day.