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The Digital Beat: The Year in Digital Music

2001 will go down as the year digital music grew up — or at least, underwent growing pains. Napster was smacked down. The Recording Industry hatched online music subscription plans. And digital music players finally made the grade. Here’s a rundown of the year’s winners and losers.

2001 Winners:

The Recording Industry Association of America: After long gruesome months of battling Napster, the RIAA — the association of major labels — got its holiday gifts early this year when the courts ruled that, yes, Napster was facilitating copyright infringement. The RIAA didn’t just celebrate, it reveled, heralding its own plans to launch pay-to-download online subscription plans that would put the ball once and for all back in its court. The verdict on this, however — as well as a Federal investigation into the RIAA’s potential antitrust violations — remains out.

The Napster Spawn: Long before Napster fell, a stronger, less vulnerable posse of peer-to-peer music sites filed in to take over. Gnutella, BearShare, LimeWire, MusicCity, Kazaa. The list goes on. What they all have in common is their unabashedly bad-ass structure — cobbled together by essentially linking music fans to each other rather than running through a central company office (which proved to be the downfall of Napster). As 2001 ends, they are the most downloaded programs online.

iPod: Leave it to Apple, the supermodel of the computer industry, to come up with the best and sexiest MP3 player on the shelf. Sleek white and chrome, the iPod looked like a prop out of Stanley Kubrick’s Milk Bar. Even better, there was substance behind the style as the machine was able to quickly suck down and store up to 1000 songs. Though Windows owners were left in the dust, hackers wasted no time trying to piece together a PC version. The iPod signals a bright and friendly future for portable tunes.

2001 Losers:

Napster: Love it, hate it, Napster provided a white hot moment in the history of music business. At worst, it proved that copyrights meant little in the digital age. At best, it was the definitive promotion for the possibilities of distributing music online. Ultimately, though, it was a victim of its own big dumb face — dressing up as some kind of social cause when in fact it was little more than a poorly run startup. Thanks for the memories.

Online Subscriptions: So far, so bad for the major labels’ online subscription plans. MusicNet was the first and worst from the gate, as it launched a service that was mind-numbingly retrograde — no ability to transfer songs to portable players, no ability to burn songs to a CD. While Sony and Universal wait in the wings with their competing PressPlay service, the future looks increasingly lame. Footnote: not too long ago, gaming companies tried to launch pay-to-play services and met with similarly sour reception from gamers who knew they could do the same thing elsewhere for free.

Radio: The Internet was supposed to be the ultimate antenna, able to broadcast online feeds of radio stations around the world. Then the bad news set in. Early in 2001, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents all those voice-over actors used in radio commercials, demanded additional fees for online broadcasts. Rather than cough up the cash, hundreds of Net stations chose to simply unplug. It typified the loudest refrain of digital music in 2001: Show me the money!

4. Garbage, Beautiful Garbage (Almo Sounds/Interscope): At least as good as the third Roxy Music album, highlighted by wicked parodies of contemporary pop (Destiny’s Child, ‘N Sync, et al.)

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