14) Fear and Loathing…

December 1999

My heart pounded as I watched over Chris’s shoulder. He misspelled every word of a search but still managed to launch a download before I could offer even a single correction. I stood trembling, steadying myself using the back of his chair. Visions of the war raced through my mind blurring all attempts at clarity. Shit, shit, shit!

“Wha, what are you looking for?” I addled the only question he’d already answered.

“Heard… radio… angry… it’s name… my music… can’t find… stomach ache… our generation… argument…”

Mental static jumbled his answer. But I remember in perfect clarity his unblinking intensity. A cool determination that used the phrase “my music” as if I couldn’t possibly understand. I knew with certainty that he was right. He was having an emotional experience I would never share. Just as he’d never experience my goosebumps during “American Pie.” Or I’d never feel Dad’s invincibility as Sinatra sang “My Way”.

I empathized of course. Our backstories were even quite similar. Chris had heard a song on the radio. The tune encapsulated his emotions of the moment and he’d mentioned it during an intense discussion with friends. Maddeningly, all his keen insight had been lost squabbling over its identification.

He was obviously frustrated but hadn’t whined, stomped or banged the door. He simply set out to solve his own problem using a new tool he’d heard about on the internet. If that meant learning new computer skills or even correcting his own spelling, then so be it. He showed determination, maturity, self motivation and critical thinking. I couldn’t have been prouder.

Or more freaked out!

I scanned the Napster UI warily looking for his downloads. Only six Nirvana songs, all obvious variants on a theme. My pulse began to subside.

I’d caught him in time.

No, I hadn’t lied to Chris. I had *deliberately* never used Napster. I had, however, followed it from its genesis. Depending on your point of view Napster was either the most exciting or the most dangerous phenomenon ever to happen to the scene.

It scared the fuck out of me!

Worse yet, it couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. The RIAA was fighting tooth and nail against the manufacturer of MP3 players. They had argued their case in April and I’d been reading clueless sound bites all spring. Each commentator reporting smugly his confidence that the gadget “which had no conceivable non-infringing use” was all but dead and buried.

Then on June 15th their self-satisfying but myopic fantasy came crashing down. I was blown away. Well, more like completely fucking ecstatic! I stood and whooped in the office. The court ruled that not only were MP3 players completely legal… “Woot!”  They continued on, unasked, to point out that ripping MP3s to your computer was completely legal as well!  Fist pump! “Hell Yeah!”  Best of all, the judge pointed out the music industry’s beating had been entirely self-inflicted! “Holy, fucking, shit!”

It was not just a simple judicial “fuck you” to the music industry. It was a “fuck you,” deliberately finished off with, “…and up yours, you stupid, fucking, loser, dumbshit!” Diamond was a huge victory in the war. It is hard to overstate its importance… Err… Well. It’s hard to overstate the importance it would have had… should have had…

Arrg! Fuck it. Nobody has a clue there even was a Diamond Rio decision, a fact which still made me want to drive nails with my forehead!

The war’s tide had turned in our favor. But, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, a teenager and his uncle decided the tide should be turned back.

Now, six months later, on Pearl Harbor Day of all days, the RIAA had just filed a $20 billion lawsuit against Napster. It was quite probably the least surprising news I heard that day. The general public was already rallying to their cause.

It’s not that downloading music was fundamentally different than recording from the radio. But unlike my trustworthy cassette recorder Napster had a character flaw.

It ratted you out.

Each time Chris downloaded a song, Napster sent notice to its central server. By design, this server told anyone looking for that song everyone who had it. Napster also allowed absolutely anyone to peek through Chris’s machine seeing everything else he had downloaded. To someone who’d seen stormtroopers rain down on less, it was a truly terrifying specter. This wasn’t the X-Files. They were indeed out there.

Anyone in the music industry with any technical savvy downloaded Napster. Most ran daily searches that became progressively horrifying. A thousand different songs and 10,000 users in June. “Who cares.” Ten thousand songs across 75,000 users in August. “Damn!” A fifty thousand song and 200,000 user in October. “Holy Crap!

By December 1999 the RIAA claimed there where 200,000 different songs available. Estimates claimed over a million Napster users. They were apoplectic with rage.

It’s amazing how many ideas go through your head in a fraction of a second.

I could put a stop to this right now! Just rant and rave like a Christian mother finding her son’s first Playboy. “This is going straight into the digital trash bin! Don’t you ever bring sleazy Napster filth into this house again!”

Yeah, right. That was not going to happen. The truth is he hadn’t done anything wrong and I knew it. I wasn’t about to punish him just because I was scared.

In fact, I really wanted him to succeed. Sure, using Napster to download Nirvana’s back catalog willy nilly was less than efficient. Yes, I realized there were a dozen simplifying suggestions I could make. I was also pretty sure Libby had every single Nirvana CD sitting on a rack in her room. But this wasn’t my quest. He hadn’t asked for my help.

I had no doubt he would find his own answer. My parental intervention would only suck all emotional impact from his journey. Would I still get goosebumps, I thought, if Dad had said, “Silly! The library is two blocks away. Just go read the liner notes. Duh!”

Part of being a parent is deciding NOT to be an obstacle to your child’s personal growth.

The other part, however, is knowing when to be your child’s most important defender.

I knew Chris’s troubles were collateral damage from the war. Years before The music industry had stopped radio stations from announcing upcoming songs. They claimed it was too easy for kids to make recordings. Out of protest, radio stations cut down on post song announcements. By the late ’90s, stations decided to make record companies pay for song announcements. It was little wonder he’d missed the title.

I wanted to scream, “WOOT! Carry on! You couldn’t be more justified! Download them all! Tell your friends, tell the neighbors! Let’s burn the whole fucking industry to the ground!”

There were a hundred stories I wanted to tell him. Stories of a war which had raged my whole life. Cassette recording victories in the ’70s. The loss of album radio. Video recording victories in the ’80s. Inane ads fragmenting from 60 to 30 to 15 to 7 seconds. The digital tape and mini-disk debacle of the ’90s. Recent Rio victories. The new Tivo offensive…

NO, dammit! Keep him out of it! It’s not his fight! He’s not trying to make a statement, just to name a damn song.

Before the clock even ticked I knew what I had to do.

There are lots of ways to compromise your morals. I thought I’d tried them all…

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