Jane Wakefield: Thankyou for the music...NOT!

Jane Wakefield reckons students just wanna have fun and that Napster bashers, Metallica should just chill out...

If you are a secret pineapple pushing fan of Black Lace or think there is no better pastime than playing air guitar in your bedroom to the heavy beat of Survivor's 'Eye of the Tiger', then help is at hand. No longer do you have to endure the public humiliation of actually going to the shop and buying these dreadful tunes, you can indulge your shameful habit in the comfort of your own home courtesy of Napster.

Napster is the latest Web whippersnapper, the Net's next big idea and, for once, it seems to be a good one. College dropout Shawn Fanning has come up with a software system that lets surfers swap MP3 files -- basically creating a huge online library of tunes (including, I am sure, bucketfuls of Black Lace and Survivor). Anyone wanting to find music on the Net simply has to download the Napster software, request a tune and sit back while it is found.

Similarly Napster scans your hard-drive for MP3s and copies them to anyone that wants them. Users of the system claim there are few, if any tunes that Napster cannot find -- so if nothing else you can have fun trying to dredge up that obscure track you heard at a party in 1986.

Of course, despite the simple brilliance of Napster -- or perhaps because of it -- it is courting controversy in a way that would make Christine Keeler green with envy as it goes head to head with the all-powerful music industry. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and "popular beat combo" Metallica have been tearing their ponytails out in attempts to rid the Net of the menace of Napster. The European music watchdog the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) is also threatening to get tough on Napster clones coming across the pond. The row has reached the courts with both the RIAA and Metallica currently suing Napster, claiming the technology is spoiling the party for hard-working musicians and that no-one is entitled to free music.

But, cry music fans, we have been enjoying free music for years. I personally have hundreds of tapes lying around my house sprawled with illegible student handwriting -- quite often with made-up track listings and barely audible due to the number of copies that have been made. Swapping music is as much a college tradition as stealing shopping trolleys and putting traffic beacons on old ladies' roofs. Free music is a right and copyright a word we can't hear because the stereo is turned up too loud.

If the Internet allows music swapping to go global then that just proves what a brilliant invention the Web is. And the music industry had better get used to it.

Oh no, no, no retorts the music industry. MP3 is illegal, you have no more right to own free music than you have the right to throw TVs out of hotel bedroom windows. Both these are the reserve of rock stars -- or artists as the RIAA insists on calling them these days.

After all it takes time to create tunes and time is money. The minutes spent slaving over creating the same riff used by the Beatles twenty years ago deserves remuneration. The seconds spent writing heart-rending lyrics like Snap's excellent "as serious as cancer" rhyme for 'Rhythm is a Dancer' deserve wads of cash. Musicians are artists and their work should not be exploited over the Web. Hand over your money immediately, delete your MP3s and remember, it is the music moguls who exploit you, not the other way round.

The relationship between bands and record labels has not always been a happy one -- everyone remembers George Michael dragging Sony through the courts to the tune of "Please release me". But Napster has become something of a marriage guidance counsellor as it unites musicians and the music establishment in common outrage over the issue.

Stepping back for a minute though, there is something not quite right about a heavy rock band like Metallica holding hands with the RIAA in court. Drummer Lars Ulrich's accusation that Napster user are trafficking in stolen goods sounds more like the words of a Tory politician than a hard-living rock star. This is an irony not lost on the fans who have taken to barracking their heroes over its fight with Napster. After all, aren't our musicians supposed to be rebels and mavericks out to smash the system?

Of course there are some muzos that are standing up to defend the new culture of digital music. David Bowie, Public Enemy and US heavy rockers Limp Bizkit are all enthusiastic fans of MP3. Limp Bizkit is organising a free tour to promote Napster (no doubt hoping it will at the same time up sales on their salubriously titled Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water album).

MP3 has created a new dichotomy for the music industry as it spawns Web sites and copycat Napster systems across the world. The fight between the RIAA and Napster is far from over and the popularity of MP3 threatens to be too big for the music industry to control. The establishment don't always get their own way -- as Ken Livingstone proved on Friday and the battle to sanitise MP3 may be one they just can't win.

It is not over, as they say, until the fat lady sings -- and it may well be that she is singing to the tune of MP3.

The impact of Napster will be felt far beyond the confines of the record industry's executive suites. And few software programs have generated as much controversy as Napster. Go with Bill Burnham for a brief history and predictions for Napster's future.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.

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