Danny McGinley is a pretty typical University of Washington student. Nineteen years old and heading into his sophomore year, he plans to major in business. He holds down a part-time job at a clothing store, and coaches gymnastics in his spare time. And he's been violating federal law by downloading recorded music files since he was 14, and doesn't see much wrong with it.

Until the major-label trade group the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) generated a tidal wave of national headlines in the last week by suing 261 downloaders for copyright infringement, including the widely publicized cases of a 12-year-old girl and a 71-year-old grandfather, McGinley never even thought about the possibility that there might be potential legal ramifications for his actions. Downloading music is just "part of life" for people in his generation, he says. "It's not necessarily worth it to drop $20 for one CD."

Without doubt, McGinley is far from alone in his views. An estimated 60 million Americans download music files off the web, using peer-to-peer file-swapping services in the post-Napster era such as Kazaa and Grokster, and their ranks have been growing rapidly over the last couple of years.

The fact that young people like McGinley who were weaned on the Net--downloading since their early teens--see nothing wrong with the practice probably isn't much of a surprise. What does surprise, though, is that segments of the music industry are bucking the RIAA by agreeing with the downloaders, including some prominent local recording artists and record labels.

Jed Maheu, a spokesperson for Sub Pop Records, says that the industry is to blame for its current problems. "CDs are so expensive, it causes people to want to download," he says. For niche labels like Sub Pop, downloading can actually help get the word out about new releases. "I don't see it as a threat," Maheu says, adding that Sub Pop protects sales by offering something extra for customers, like distinctive artwork or limited-edition stickers: "We're doing better than we ever have before." He expects the RIAA tactics to backfire by "pissing consumers off."

Seattle-based Sir Mix-A-Lot, of "Baby Got Back" fame, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the growing campaign against downloading. "The music industry sucks," he says, and the lawsuits only reveal how out of touch it is. "It's absolutely ignorant," he says. "Talk about bad press."

In his view, the major labels have exploited artists and record buyers for too long, paying too little in royalties and charging too much while gorging themselves on excess profits, and now are finally getting their comeuppance. "The business has been ripping off kids for years," he contends. "I think the majors should go to hell." If music downloading kills the power of the major labels, that will only benefit pop music from an artistic perspective, Mix-A-Lot believes.

His critique doesn't end there. The claim that downloading is the driving force behind declining record sales is "a bunch of bullshit," he adds. The real cause is that big labels aren't offering what people want to hear. The industry has turned into "a bunch of guys in Beverly Hills trying to decide what people in St. Louis want to listen to. That's the problem." Mix's current release, Daddy's Home, is on Rhyme Cartel Records/iMusic, and is distributed by BMG.

In fact, downloading can actually boost record sales if handled correctly, Mix believes. "A kid goes online and downloads a single Eminem song. If he likes the song, he'll go out and buy the record." He points to the success of online porn sites to bolster his case. "Look at the porno cats," he says. "They give you a free peek, then they hit you up for $10." Like a growing number of local artists, he plans to offer downloads on his website, in his case, live cuts offered at modest cost.

But within the industry, Mix-A-Lot and Sub Pop are probably in the minority. Dave Meinert, Seattle music promoter and the president of the Northwest chapter of the Recording Academy, which represents the interests of recording-industry professionals, says the RIAA is right to sue downloaders. "I think it's great," he says.

He says the equation is simple: File swappers are stealing from artists. Artists who survive off royalties from their back catalogs have seen their income fall anywhere between 11 and 50 percent in recent years, Meinert says.

The lawsuits are one component of a larger industry strategy that includes educational efforts and offering legal web alternatives to illegal downloading, such as Apple's rapidly expanding iPod service, through which buyers can download individual songs for 99 cents a pop, Meinert argues. If the industry doesn't succeed in stopping downloading now, artists, and ultimately society, will suffer. "I don't look forward to an artless world," he says.

The recording industry has certainly cast the battle as an apocalyptic struggle for survival. In a September 8 press release, the RIAA called the recent lawsuits only "the first wave" in an ongoing enforcement campaign, and warned that thousands more are facing legal action. RIAA President Cary Sherman said that "when your product is being regularly stolen, there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action."

The RIAA claims that recorded-music sales have slipped 30 percent in the last two years, though an independent assessment by Forrester Research put the actual sales decline at 15 percent. The 261 people who were sued downloaded an average of 1,000 songs each, the RIAA statement said.

For the short term, at least, the publicity wave is enabling the RIAA to get its message out. McGinley seems keenly aware of the RIAA actions. While he admits to having done "lots" of downloading over the years, he emphasizes that the total is "less than 1,000," the threshold above which the RIAA seems more likely to take legal action. And, he emphasizes, he hasn't been downloading music files since the beginning of the summer.

If true, that's music to the RIAA's ears. But with the millions of habitual downloaders out there, even 1,000 lawsuits or more, no matter how high-profile, would just be a drop in the bucket. It may be that the genie is already out of the bottle, and no amount of coercion will succeed in stopping technological change. Whether this situation turns into "I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)," as the industry hopes, or "The Song Remains the Same" for McGinley and his generation of downloaders, is yet to be determined.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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