I was 16 when I began my life of crime.

I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but the fact remains that in April of 2000 I sat in front of my newly installed Napster and downloaded my first MP3--Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Shortly thereafter I received notice that the band had personally fingered me, along with 335,000 other people, for stealing their music, and that I would be facing a lawsuit if my heinous activity continued. With that, my account was terminated, and I turned from the computer in shame, vowing never to download illegally again.

Or at least, that was what was supposed to happen. Really, I did exactly what everyone else probably did--spent a week anxiously waiting for things to blow over, then signed back on and began downloading with a fervor not seen since my discovery of Internet porn. While Napster was eventually forced to log off for good (and is currently restrategizing its return), its legacy continued in a legion of bastard children like Kazaa, Morpheus, and Direct Connect. Thanks to companies like theirs, we now have an entire generation--myself included--who spend about as much time questioning the morality of copyright infringement as we do contemplating the ethics of jaywalking.

There's no question that my demographic--teenagers and college students-- is most responsible for illegal downloading. Take a random sampling of college dorms and it's clear why the recording industry targeted universities first. Growing up enveloped by the Internet has left its mark on the current underage crowd, and that digital umbilical cord gives us a leg up on older folks when it comes to pirating music. Yet it's not just technological prowess that causes us to wave our collective hand and download, dismissing our mothers when they ask, "But... isn't it illegal?" What, then, makes a teen who would never consider shoplifting download copyrighted music?

One answer lies in the lack of an innocent victim. While we may be slashing the record industry's income, it's hard to scrounge up sympathy when our own wallets are being gutted by the grossly inflated cost of a CD. A few years ago, the standard price of a CD was $12, more or less--now it's pushing $19.

Despite the cost, though, most of us are still willing to buy CDs--once we've made sure they're worthwhile by downloading a few tracks. The prevailing attitude seems to be that if record companies keep using one decent radio single to try and trick us into buying crappy albums, they deserve whatever's coming. If you can test-drive a car and sniff a wine cork, why not preview a CD?

My qualms about downloading have less to do with legality than with wronging my favorite artists. But even then there are plenty of acts who embrace file-sharing, allowing fans to spread their music because they realize that in the long run, winning over new listeners is far more beneficial than worrying about stolen MP3s. Sharing MP3s is a means of gaining exposure--and in an era of corporate radio and set playlists, it's often the only one available for the smaller acts. To these musicians, finding their songs on Kazaa means someone's actually listening. Even some industry giants like the Offspring understand this, which is why they attempted in 2000 to release their album Conspiracy of One for free over the Internet (and then found themselves slapped with a lawsuit by their own label). In light of such events, it's small wonder that many downloaders (and downloadees) see themselves not as criminals, but as musical Robin Hoods: stealing from the rich and giving to the fans.

While it might seem like a stretch to call copyright violation civil disobedience, for many it's exactly that. Taking the more philosophical approach, we justify our actions by asserting that the record industry is still clinging desperately to an outdated, if lucrative, business model. As happens every time music technology advances, the corporations are afraid to embrace a new medium and temporarily lose their death grip on America's wallets. The screeching we're hearing is merely the sound of a paradigm shifting without a clutch.

In the end, though, the morality of the situation has been rendered moot. The record companies milk us for all we are worth, and now the burned consumers are waiting for a decent reason to start paying them again, while hot on our heels comes an army of preteens for whom there isn't even the trace of an ethical question--music has always been free on the Internet.

Only when the suits accept that we're neither willing nor able to go back to a time before file-swapping can we finally begin to move forward together and reimagine the recording industry.

In the meantime... ÁViva la revolución!

editor@thestranger.com

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