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Students scoff at paying Internet piper

Sunday, June 01, 2003

By Bill Schackner and Jon Vandenburgh, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Matt Long, a University of Pittsburgh senior, remembers how his freshman year roommate at Villanova University managed to amass a collection of 10,000 songs by downloading them for free on the Internet.

"Is it a crime?" Long asked himself. "Well -- probably not a crime, but it's probably not the right thing to do."

Still, he said, "I'm not sure how you would actually curb it."

But that's exactly what the music industry wants to do, claiming that illegal Internet file sharing is crippling its CD sales. And now, Penn State University President Graham Spanier has added to the debate by proposing that colleges charge students a mandatory fee to download music legally on dormitory computers.

Spend some time on a college campus, though, and it's hard to imagine why anyone thinks the public will turn to a subscriber service, or agree to pay by the song, so they can get their fix of Godsmack, Britney Spears or 50 Cent.

"It would have been a good idea five years ago," said Desney Tan, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. "Now that everything's free, it's kind of too late."

Still, there are some recent signs that paid services might be the wave of the future.

Until this year, most pay services' sales were relatively small compared with the millions and millions of songs available for free across the Web, experts say.

But then on April 28, Apple unveiled its iTunes Music Store for Mac users, allowing purchasers for 99 cents a title to download files that require less hard drive space and are intended to offer sound superior to MP3s, the dominant format for music downloads. Since its debut a month ago, Apple says, iTunes Music Store has sold more than 3 million songs.

Some in the industry are taking notice.

"That's something that kind of wakes one up to the possibility of what can happen if you have a sharp system that allows consumers to get what they want," said Geoff Mayfield, Billboard magazine director of charts and a columnist who analyzes album sales.

Mayfield recalled how he once scoffed at the notion of pay-TV and thought bottled water was laughable. These days, Mayfield's cable bill approaches $100 a month, and "guess what, I'm a huge consumer of bottled water now."

In a similar way, Mayfield said, he's converted to the notion that pay services might woo away some users accustomed to free sites such as the hugely popular Kazaa.

And he's not alone.

Quality for $10 a month

Even some outspoken defenders of the freewheeling nature of the Internet are rethinking their positions, given the growing selection of music available on pay sites like Pressplay and Rhapsody, the sound quality they offer and other features beyond the music that aren't available on free sites.

"I used to be a strong believer that the only way to get this music was to download it yourself, which was illegal," said Peter Fader, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and an ardent critic of the music industry's opposition to file sharing. "Then I discovered some of these legal services."

"If you're a music lover, then 10 bucks a month is well worth it. You can listen to as much music as you want," he said. "If you want to download it or burn it to a CD, you pay an extra fee."

And if the "streaming quality" -- when a computer user listens to music without downloading it -- is good enough, then the need to own music files is lessened. Fader said the streaming quality on many pay sites is now quite good, and that makes much of the copyright issue vanish.

"If I can just click on it and the song comes up right away and it's crystal clear, I don't have to have the song on my hard drive," he said.

When it comes to actually selling the music files, though, it's rough competing in a price war with someone hanging a "Free" sign in the window.

And few populations are as sensitive to that distinction as college-age adults, whose appetite for music is voracious and whose computer savvy may be unmatched.

That's the group that would be covered by the idea Spanier is advancing as co-chairman of a national panel of higher education leaders and entertainment executives now looking at copyright infringement.

Spanier suggests that campuses ought to pay the recording industry for access to the music and then make it available to students. Campuses would recoup the money through a mandatory charge, possibly an addition to the housing or student activity fee.

Spanier hopes that with the recording industry's blessing, there will be several campus pilot programs under way in a year or two, including one at his school.

Some say weaning students from free downloading will be tortuous at best.

Many college students "grew up doing this stuff and now look at this almost as a right," said Dave Jamison, dean of the School of Communications and Information Systems at Robert Morris University.

Sade Olowude, who just graduated from Pitt, recalled watching a segment on MTV in which a recording artist talked about making $75,000 from a single concert. It makes Olowude laugh when she sees popular artists admonish viewers that music downloading is stealing.

"If they weren't artists, they'd do it, too," she said.

Too many 'trashy' songs

Olowude's friend Alvin Jones, also a new Pitt graduate, said the music industry takes advantage of consumers. "They have one or two good songs on their albums and the rest of the songs are trash," he said.

The generally mediocre quality of many CDs is why music downloading became so popular, and once that happened, the genie was out of the bottle, Jones said.

None of that changes the fact that file swapping amounts to stealing, and it's having a profound effect on music sales, recording industry officials say.

That's why they're taking offenders to court and why Congress is talking about stepping in to protect artists' rights.

Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, cites music sale losses of 11 percent, 10 percent and 7 percent the past three years. He said it's not hard to see what's largely to blame.

Still, as serious a problem as file swapping is, some industry observers say other factors have contributed to those losses, too. One has to do with the music itself.

"We've gone from the days of the teen pop stuff being very hot to there not really being a genre that really hits people where they live," said Billboard's Mayfield.

The economy hasn't helped, either. "When you're not sure you're going to have a job next month, then buying an album is less important," he said.

Mike Monaco, owner of The Rock Shop in Bethel Park, said his business will not survive if current trends continue. "Something has to change or you're going to see independent retail music vanish and there's going to be nothing left but online and mall stores," he said. "Music sales -- the numbers just aren't what they used to be."

Monaco said online music downloads are at least partially responsible. "It can't help my business," he said. He also blames large chain stores for undercutting his business. "Best Buy is selling it for $11.99, which is less than I can buy it for."

Bill Schackner can be reached at bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.

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