The spectre that has latterly been haunting it is called MP3, a reproduction technology capable of squeezing music into relatively small files while maintaining high sound quality. Faced with this, the music industry mounted a campaign against it on the grounds that it threatened copyright. Then, last month, it did a deal. MTV announced that it had reached an agreement with a company called Diamond Multimedia (the producers of portable MP3 players) to establish facilities for downloading music from MTV websites. Soon, downloading songs will become as standard a procedure as sending requests to Radio 1 by e-mail.
MP3 has been a runaway success, in terms of popularity and profile, but in the process it has become a fertile pasture for the things that get the Net a bad name: in-efficiency, illegality, dross and sleaze. At first, it all looks very promising. The MP3.com site is festooned with explanations of what it's all about, and links to download free software which will play MP3 files on even the most exotic operating systems. Getting the technology is the easy bit. The hard part is getting hold of anything worth playing.
There are two roads that the MP3 seeker can go down. On the straight and narrow, copyright-compliant path, the MP3.com site offers songs in spadefuls. However, since these are mostly put there by artists craving exposure, the menus are not exactly enticing. They tend to be filled by charts in tiny fonts, listing the thousands of successful acts that the wannabes wish they sounded like.
Sorriest of all is the Bottom 40, featuring the site's least frequently downloaded songs. For light relief, an entry in the Spoken Word category for Bill Clinton features recordings such as "That Woman" and other favourites from the Monicagate sessions.
Further dabbling still failed to get me any actual music, so I abandoned MP3.com and wandered off to Public Enemy's site. The ageing rappers apparently feel they have been ripped off by the white racist music industry, which they discuss in a number called "Swindler's Lust" (which they are here giving away for free). After a download that took 11 minutes, I had a copy of the three-minute, three-megabyte single. As whinges go, it's a collector's item, but if you want a decent late-Nineties track, you'll still have to buy a CD.
Back on-line, I started roaming around the search engines. Before long I was in the MP3 underworld, which has very little to do with music. Pirate sites promise to deliver illicit versions of MTV Top 40 hits, suggesting that MP3 really is the monster that the music industry claims it is. But links to such sites either fail to connect, or lead to successions of pages promising that downloads are just around the corner. Meanwhile, window after window pops up, advertising lists of porn sites along with supposed MP3 sites. As the punters grow frustrated in their search for illicit pop music, the porn sites are ready and waiting to take their credit card details.
In these murky depths, the Web actually looks as its worst enemies fear. It also performs abysmally, for reasons that experienced Net users find all too familiar. Desperate to outscore their voracious competitors, the peddlers throw up window after window until the browser seizes up and crashes. Mine hasn't quite got over the experience, but then it's led a sheltered life.
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