As home to Silicon Valley, Northern California is probably ahead of the rest of the country in its embrace of MP3s. A popular gift at high-school birthday parties in that part of the country is a CD containing a custom MP3 mix created with a CD "burner".
Close behind the schools of Silicon Valley in MP3 music appreciation are the high schools on the East Coast. In New York City, Dan, who recently graduated from a city high school, estimates a quarter of the students at his school have MP3s.
Students say they find online MP3s in the hit-or-miss way that people find anything on the Internet. Search engines are one way to go about it, although general-purpose sites like Yahoo tend to have a lot of links to MP3 sites that are no longer operating. MP3 hunters tend to use more specialised search engines like scour.net, audiogalaxy (audiogalaxy.com), filequest (filequest.com) and oth.net (oth.net) that home in on the music they want to download. Also popular are "Web rings," or linked collections of the home pages of people with similar interests.
Some MP3 collectors bypass search engines and Web sites altogether by trading with each other directly via popular Internet "instant message" and "chat" technologies. Most have a friend somewhere online with a huge MP3 collection who can be a lender of last resort. Brendan's childhood friend Alex, for example, is now a freshman in college and has 11 gigabytes, or thousands of songs. "Now that's a collection," Brendan says.
As they swap their MP3 music, students seem unconcerned about getting into trouble for violating copyright laws. New York City's Dan, who runs an MP3 site with two dozen top hits, says he has no fears. "So many people are doing it that I don't worry about getting caught at all," he said.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is trying to crack down on illegal MP3s. But its president, Hilary Rosen, says it isn't out to jail high-school students just for downloading a few Pearl Jam tracks. Instead, the organization is trying to make it as hard as possible to find MP3s on the Internet. Association staff members continually monitor the Web, sending sternly worded electronic mail to hundreds of people a week, demanding they shut down MP3-laden sites.
Overall, the record industry maintains that the current interest in MP3s will die out as soon as teenagers have an alternative music source. Many music companies are trying to develop alluring new Web technologies that are piracy-proof and charge a fee. "Soon there will be an exciting new way of buying music online," Ms. Rosen says. "This age group will be the first to do it." Not if Brendan is representative of the group. New Internet music technology, he says, "won't have any bonus, except to give the record companies more money."
David, the Mountain View sophomore, is philosophical about the issue. "People need to understand the Internet," he says. "It allows for a lot of competition. It also allows for a lot of free stuff."
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