Ransom Notes

Can one man persuade millions of people to pay for their 'free' music?

No one likes to be seen as the roadblock to a revolution. The unfortunate soul -- or the dumb bastard -- who chooses to impede progress is likely to be mowed down by those charging toward tomorrow. He will become a thing to be wiped off the shoes of those who march, march, march forever onward. Woe to the little man who obstructs big ideas. He is, quite simply, doomed.

Do not tell this to Noah Stone, although many others have. A year ago, Stone -- a singer-songwriter and the son of Ron Stone, who has managed the likes of Joni Mitchell, Los Lobos, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young -- formed a coalition called Artists Against Piracy, the goal of which is to convince millions of people that it is wrong to download and swap songs, for free, over the Internet. That's right: Stone, along with such artists as Aimee Mann, Alanis Morissette, Dwight Yoakam and almost 70 other recording artists, wants you to pay for songs you've been taking for free off such file-sharing services as Napster and Gnutella. Right now, if you don't mind.

For his efforts, thousands have logged on to his organization's Web site (www.artistsagainstpiracy.com) and damned the 28-year-old Stone as a greed-mongering lackey doing the bidding not just of artists worried about having their pockets picked, but of record labels out to rape consumers by charging $17.99 for CDs containing only a handful of desirable songs. That's because Artists Against Piracy is funded, in part, by the Washington, D.C.-based Recording Industry Association of America, the trade organization that represents the world's five largest record labels -- all of which are currently involved in litigation against Napster, under the RIAA umbrella. Artists Against Piracy also receives funding from the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, a trade group representing music retailers and wholesalers, whose very existence is threatened by the proliferation of MP3 files, which transport CD-quality music from one user to another with the click of a mouse.

Noah Stone put his musical career on hold to take on Napster.
Noah Stone put his musical career on hold to take on Napster.

So, every day, they come by the hundreds to Stone's site and tell him what a gluttonous bastard he is or what a bad idea his group is. They call him names; they shout in capital letters. "Get a grip on reality and realize that MP3s and file-sharing are here to stay," writes one of the more thoughtful posters. "Call it piracy if you like, but there's no way to stop it." Another writes, "You are all fucking retards. I will fucking pirate everything I own and laugh in your faces. PIRACY OWNS ALL OF YOU. YOU CAN'T STOP IT." One poster even encourages people to take down the list of artists affiliated with Artists Against Piracy, "copy their CDs to MP3, sell the CDs second-hand, and never buy their music or memorobilia [sic]."

It is little wonder that Stone feels more than a little beat up. Since the inception of Artists Against Piracy, which raised its profile last month with a series of TV ads built around the copyright logo, Stone has tried to convince people he's working only for the good of the musicians, whose livelihoods, he insists, are threatened by the new technology. Seems a lot of people ain't buyin' it.

"The hardest part is trying to convince everyone, including the people who use Napster, that even though we're working in part with the record companies, we don't directly represent them," Stone says from his offices in Los Angeles. He sounds weary, and with good reason. Three days before this interview, he was sitting in his office waiting for a VH1 crew, which was to film Stone for its year-end Behind the Music special, when he was notified that Napster had entered into a business arrangement with one of the labels suing it, Bertelsmann Music Group, which has on its roster such acts as Santana, Christina Aguilera, and Foo Fighters. Though Napster continues to be free, sooner or later a monthly fee (most likely $4.95) will be assessed to use the service. Stone finds the settlement "encouraging," but a long way from the answer. For starters, how will Napster divide the money and distribute it to artists?

"This is a very difficult thing," Stone says. "In a time of revolution, you've got all these people trying to storm the castle, and I'm in the middle going, 'No, wait, we can work this out.' I'm the guy trying to break up the fight. I always have been. I kind of wish I had had a sociologist on staff this whole time. Initially, there wasn't a lot of that anti-label sentiment, and then that seemed to be a justification argument to cloud the issue: This isn't stealing from an artist we love, this is stealing from the monolithic labels. It became a revolution, which it never really was. It seemed like it was, and people were stirring the flames, and then Napster was stirring the flames. But what we're doing at Artists Against Piracy is we're saying, essentially, there isn't a revolution, but there is a chance for reformation, and to be a reformist when people think there's a revolution is a really unpopular position to be in."

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