At seventeen Janis Ian had much to say - she still does

 

The singer's thoughts on downloading music is another shot in an ongoing war Napster was so successful because it filled a void the record companies had utterly neglected - that of the convenient and easy internet delivery of music.

Hooray for Janis Ian. Those with long musical memories might recall her as the singer that had a 1960s hit as a precocious 15-year- old with a song called Society's Child - and then a huge success in the 1970s with that plaintive ballad of the misfit, At Seventeen.

She's still rocking away, writing music, touring and running a website. But she's just shown she can pack a powerful writer's punch as well, in two articles written for her website that have gone 'viral' - e.g., are being widely circulated across the Web, read and debated. The pieces have been translated into nine languages, and have sparked a cranky response from music industry management - which means she must be doing something right.

The articles, which you can read on www.janisian.com, are cogent and passionately argued opinion pieces about why she believes music downloading over the internet is a good thing. She also argues that technologies that restrict what a music buyer can do with a piece of music - as demanded by the big Hollywood entertainment conglomerates - should be viewed with outrage by music buyers and artists.

This is a multi-layered debate that has been gaining momentum ever since the song file-swapping software program Napster became a phenomenon and then, unsurprisingly, a focus of industry lawsuits.

Napster, as the Wall Street Journal has argued, was so successful because it filled a void the record companies had utterly neglected - that of the convenient and easy internet delivery of music. The key words here are "convenient" and "easy".

For a couple of years prior to Napster's arrival, people could download songs encoded in the compressed MP3 format from the Net from then-young and gritty (and now very slick) sites such as MP3.com.

But you had to hunt around through chat rooms or surreptitious websites to find others with the songs you wanted. And then, you either e-mailed the songs or used file-sharing programs to trade them around or put them on a website to be downloaded.

Lots of students were doing this in the States, primarily because they were a generation truly comfortable with home PCs and, through their universities, they very often had access to high-speed, high-capacity internet service.

Music files are large and can take a long time to send and receive - up to an hour for a song - without a fast connection.

The music industry, far from investigating the new recording, sales, promotion and distribution possibilities of the internet, decided instead to bring big, widely publicised lawsuits against individual students, thus alienating their biggest market. Smart move, guys.

It took the industry about three more years, until Napster, to mount any kind of crusade based on - well, one almost gags on the phrase "moral issues" in the context of big record companies, but that's how they would describe the stance.

According to industry groups, downloading music was robbery, people using Napster were thieves, musicians were being screwed out of royalties and recognition for their work, record companies were losing money from blockbuster acts that they would otherwise use to support the continued production of music in niche, low-selling genres like jazz, folk and world music.

Record companies wanted to defend the rights of musicians to make money from their music, and to preserve the wide availability and diversity of music.

But many found such arguments, coming from the record companies, galling. On the one hand were consumers, who felt prices for CDs were inordinately expensive, especially given the low cost of creating and packaging a CD. They felt the recording industry focused primarily on bland acts it could turn into mega-earning superstars and cash cows for the labels.

Also, they argued, many of the back-catalogue songs and oldies that people found on Napster were from discontinued recordings or were extremely hard to find on compilations.

And many musicians believe free downloads help drive sales of CDs, not impede them.

Then, many musicians noted that they themselves saw little of the profits their music brought the record companies (now consolidated into just four behemoth companies in the US).

Indeed, this is an important point for Ian, who argues that at least the music industry could be straightforward about its income-protecting motivations in trying to fight file-trading software and sites, rather than insist that they are acting benevolently on behalf of musicians.

In her articles she discusses all these points and makes clear exactly why she dismisses this posturing by the industry. But her opposition to its stance is much broader and required reading for anyone who cares about music, technology and the huge issue of digital-era copyright.

Understanding these issues is important because the Hollywood conglomerates are putting enormous pressure on the US government and the European Union to limit the ways in which consumers can use entertainment products such as DVDs, music and electronic books.

If these methods become acceptable you will be prevented from listening to your music on more than one device. You may be limited in the number of times you can listen to or view something you have purchased.

Your ownership of an item may be electronically tracked. And a current bill making its way through the US Congress would allow entertainment companies to hack into your computer if, for example, you tried to send a song over the internet to a friend. How daft is this going to get?

Unfortunately, as Ian notes, opposition to the Hollywood lobby is poorly organised. If Hollywood wins, artists and consumers are certain to lose.

On a sad note, one of the young but exceedingly bright pioneers of peer-to-peer software - the programs that allow computer users to connect directly to each other to share files and information - took his own life a few weeks ago. Gene Kan was the bright light behind the popular file-sharing program Gnutella and in recent times, a frequent speaker at conferences.

I caught him at a couple of Silicon Valley events, where he was smart, funny, compelling and very down to earth. Only 25-years-old, Kan had already made a considerable name for himself as both a highly gifted programmer and a thinker about technology issues.

His was a voice and talent that promised much and will be greatly missed.

klillington@irish-times.ie