The Digital Beat: Tipping for Tunes

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For many digital music enthusiasts, the Napster war seems to leave one irrefutable conclusion: Twenty-first century artists are destined to get bootlegged online. A burgeoning group of grassroots netizens, however, is trying to devise a new solution. In what some are calling a "gift economy" system, fans can trade songs over a decentralized network and -- here's the kicker -- voluntarily pay a gratuity to the artists responsible. It's a nice idea, for sure, but one that's unlikely to fly.

Espra (http://espra.net/) is the first file-trading service developed with the gift economy in mind. On the surface, the program works like other alternative file-trading warez, such as programs for Gnutella and Freenet. Users download the program, which can connects them to others looking to trade songs. Unlike Napster, Espra runs over a non-commercial, decentralized network of computers, making it difficult if not impossible to shut down.

The difference comes when downloading a specific song. Espra users will see a window pop up that lists the artist's name, the song title, plus a special link that reads "tip artist." By clicking this link, users can send a little monetary thank you -- via a credit card payment -- to the artists whose song they're downloading. "We aren't trying to circumvent the current infrastructure and rip off the artists," explained Espra project lead, Jacob Everist. "What we are doing is creating a totally new infrastructure that will revolutionize the whole notion of content distribution."

Espra isn't the only one in this camp. Another start-up peer-to-peer program called Snarfzilla (http://snarfzilla.sourceforge.net/) is featuring the tipping option. The instigators behind the movement reside at a site called Fairtunes (www.fairtunes.com). The service was launched summer by a pair of students from the University of Waterloo in Canada who felt guilty about downloading songs by their favorite band, the Tragically Hip, from Napster. Now they're spreading the Fairtunes word -- to make the service accessible through warez like Espra and Snarfzilla, as well as MP3 players like Winamp and FreeAmp. Believe it or not artists are getting paid; David Bowie, Ani Difranco, and U2 have all cashed checks . . . checks, alas, that are usually less than a hundred bucks a pop.

Yes, it's chump change, and, yes, it's a noble idea. But, ultimately it's a misguided notion too. The reality is that only a very, very, very, very small percentage of downloaders is going to voluntarily pay for otherwise free tunes. The only place these kind of systems work is really offline, like when you go to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and have to physically walk past the suggested donation booth . . . and, as a result, feel a crappy wave of guilt if you stiff the place. Without the shame factor, how many people will tip online? Hardly any. Fairtunes has got to cop to the real inevitability: Artists are going to have to find some way to profit despite the online bootlegs.