Facing the music

Nearly everyone has a gripe about the growing power of American corporate behemoths, but few of us are in any position — or even willing — to resist that power. After all, corporate America provides us with all the tools and trinkets of modern life — while exacting a healthy profit, of course.

But every now and then, someone does takes a stand — someone such as Stacey Peek, who owns the retail music store Green Eggs and Jam on North Lexington Avenue. In response to the recording industry’s lawsuit against the Web site Napster.com, Peek has purged his store’s shelves of all artists who support the suit.

“For me, it’s what I felt like I should do,” says Peek.

The Napster issue has been boiling since last December, though it only recently gained national prominence after the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a lawsuit seeking $20 billion in damages. Napster.com, an on-line search engine of MP3 (digital music file) sites launched several years ago by then-18-year-old Shawn Fanning, does not actually distribute music. Napster merely tells people where to find music files — including those protected by copyright — maintaining that its service is no different than that of any other search engine. But the RIAA counters that making it easier for people to access illegal files amounts to facilitating piracy, and that Napster.com is liable for the royalties owed to recording artists whose work has been illegally copied and distributed. (The case is similar to the landmark 1984 Supreme Court ruling in Sony vs. Universal, which allowed the sale of Betamax video recorders even though they could be used to illegally record copyrighted material.)

The lawsuit, which nearly shut down Napster.com two weeks ago, has caused deep rifts within the music industry. Many big-name artists, such as Metallica and Everclear, accuse Napster of stealing, while others, such as Courtney Love and Limp Bizkit, say they’re glad to see the end of the top-heavy music industry.

A deep vein of resentment over the corporate structure that dominates the industry is shared by many professional artists; it’s no accident that we’ve seen a huge surge in the number of independent record labels in the last 10 years. Many artists on these labels, ignored or dumped by the bigwigs, have embraced Napster as a convenient way to get their works heard nationally, and they fear that if the lawsuit kills Napster, their sales will also die.

Peek also explains that his decision has to do with “get[ting] away from the major labels in the first place, because it’s not what my store is about.” Green Eggs and Jam, which sells tapes, CDs and LPs, specializes in punk rock and heavy metal — the kind of place you might go if you need a Dead Kennedys or G.G. Allin fix. And while Peek agrees that illegal copying of copyrighted material is wrong, he cites the corporate monster as the real enemy.

“If CD prices were lower, I feel that people wouldn’t have to go to Napster,” he explains, pointing out, “Most independent CDs are a whole lot cheaper than any of [those on] major labels.

“Napster has the major labels scared, because they won’t be able to charge the $18.99 list price for a Dr. Dre CD anymore,” he continues. In some ways, Peek’s decision may be just a local tremor of a global revolution, as digital advances and the Internet effect profound changes in all aspects of the music industry.

Of course, the real paradox of Peek’s decision to endorse Napster is that it could conceivably put him out of business: If more people traded free music on-line, wouldn’t that mean they’d stop coming to his store?

“I don’t think so,” he responds, explaining, “This week, the new Rancid CD came out — it’s a big seller for us, and a lot of the kids already had the songs downloaded off the Internet, but they [also] wanted to get the packaging. People have to have something to do — they don’t want to sit around their house all the time.”

And in the end, while it may cost him a few sales, Peek’s decision to remove anti-Napster artists is unlikely to make a huge impact on his business. Many pro-Napster musicians are rebellious by nature, and their fans often share that attitude. Put another way, people coming into Peek’s shop are generally not pining for the latest N’Sync CD.

“The major label stuff,” Peek admits, “is maybe a tenth of what we sell.”

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