Every year Michael Greene, the president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, stands onstage during the show he runs, the Grammy Awards, and delivers a speech about an issue that pertains to the music world. On the broadcast last week, however, he chose a strange way to make his point.
The issue he addressed was the unauthorized trading of songs on the Internet. During the awards show he showed clips of what he said were three students downloading “as many music files as possible from easily accessible Web sites.” He added that in two days the three students downloaded nearly 6,000 songs.
“Now multiply that by millions of students and other computer users, and the problem comes into sharp focus,” he said. As he made his point, the cameras zeroed in on the three students, all looking very sheepish.
His speech, as anticipated, ignited much discussion and controversy among music fans and those in the industry. But in addition, it seems strange that he would admit on national television that he hired three people to break the law (the Electronic Theft Act) and then show them in the process of doing this, especially since one is a minor.
And now one of these downloaders for hire (at about $12 an hour), Numair Faraz, has stepped forward to say that Mr. Greene’s claim that three students downloaded 6,000 files from easily accessible Web sites isn’t even true. For starters, Mr. Faraz, 17, isn’t a student: he left school to start his own technology business. But more to the point, he says that the group didn’t spend two days downloading music; they spent three. And most revealing, he says that most of the music wasn’t even downloaded from publicly accessible Web sites.
Speaking about Mr. Greene, Mr. Faraz said, “He said it took two days to do all the stuff, and we did it for three days from 9 to 6 and left the computers on all night long, except we’d come back and the computers would be frozen.”
“I was the only one who used Bearshare and Kazaa extensively,” he continued, referring to two popular file-exchanging programs. “And half of my files never completed: they were halfway downloaded or not downloaded at all.”
As for the two others, both students at the University of California at Los Angeles, he said they hardly even used file-sharing sites. Instead, he said, they used AOL Instant Messenger, a chat program, to receive songs, which friends sent them from their hard drives. This not only means that the songs weren’t on public Web sites, but also that there is no guarantee that they were ever illegally downloaded, since some could have been from CD’s purchased by students and ripped into their hard drives.
Mr. Faraz estimated that 4,000 of the songs were sent as private messages using Instant Messenger, and a few songs were legitimate authorized downloads from the Web site MP3.com.
Barb Dehgan, a spokeswoman for the recording academy, said, “The kids were asked to download as many songs as possible off the World Wide Web, specifically, publicly accessible Web sites.” She added that they worked two half-days and one full day. She did not comment about the legality of the project.
While some in the music business applauded Mr. Greene’s speech, others criticized it and wondered what point he was trying to make.
“Burning, ripping and sharing is not killing music,” Ken Waagner, a digital-media consultant in Chicago who was part of the recording academy’s board of governors for four years, wrote in a letter to Mr. Greene. “Greed, stupidity and ignorance on the part of the policy wonks and further alienating the listener is the real threat to the business, and ultimately the artist’s ability to be heard.”
So why, then, when Mr. Faraz knew that the whole project was ridiculous did he go along with it? “I got free hotel in the Biltmore,” he said. “That’s one reason to stick with it.”
Audiogalaxy, a free music-sharing software and Internet site where MP3 files of songs are exchanged, was once the center of a small subculture of music fans who traded zip files of entire albums as well. These files packaged every song on a CD, plus images from the artwork, into a single convenient, easy-to-download file. Because Audiogalaxy was created only for the transfer of MP3 songs, these elaborate zip files were disguised by users to look like MP3 files to computers.
But after this column on Feb. 25 detailed this practice, Audiogalaxy disabled the word “zip” from its search engine. Where previously searching for files with the word zip in them turned up thousands of full albums, now the search turns up nothing, not even song titles with the actual word zip in them.
What happened? Michael Merhej, a spokesman for Audiogalaxy, said that there was such a large amount of traffic on the site and so many different things happening in the company that executives had been unaware of zip trading. Once company employees tried it for themselves, “we did block the word zip,” he said.
“The purpose of Audiogalaxy is not to download complete albums that you can go buy,” he added. “The system is not made to handle this, but people contrive things to make it work.”
Though the word zip is now blocked in the Audiogalaxy search engine, those zip files of entire albums still exist. One just has to find a different word to use to search for them or try the Usenet, where a whole news group is dedicated to full album downloads.