|Although 'N Sync smashed a sales record this year when they moved 2.4 million copies of No Strings Attached in just one week, Lance Bass is convinced his group could've sold up to a million more.
And he can pinpoint the sales-stealer in one word: Napster, the MP3-trading software that in recent weeks has ignited a debate among musicians about online piracy.
Plenty of fans, he said, had already used Napster to download No Strings Attached and its hit single, "Bye Bye Bye" (RealAudio excerpt), before the disc was released.
"I don't think you're ever going to have that excitement of that big of a sale in a first week anymore, because people are gonna have the album before it's actually out," he said. "I think sales are going to drop tremendously in the next five years."
But it's a sign of how topsy-turvy Napster has made the music industry that plenty of artists have a hard time deciding on what effect it's having — even members of the same group.
"We really haven't been hit hard with it yet, so it hasn't really affected us," Bass' bandmate JC Chasez said. He said he can see the impact of Napster coming down the road, but for now, he's content to let record companies wage war against the program.
"No matter what happens, it's gonna happen," he said.
'You Can't Just Give It Away'
Until last month, the debate over Napster — which allows users to search each other's MP3 collections and download from them — was largely an argument between tech heads and label execs.
Then last month, hard-rockers Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre sued Napster Inc., charging that the company's namesake software encourages copyright infringement by allowing users to swap near-CD-quality MP3s without permission of the copyright owner. The Recording Industry Association of America filed its own copyright lawsuit last year.
In the wake of the cases, such artists as Public Enemy leader Chuck D and punk-rockers the Offspring have countered by saying the program is a great way to promote music with listeners. Rap-metal group Limp Bizkit signed up Napster as tour sponsor for a free summer outing with hip-hoppers Cypress Hill.
While many artists feel compelled to figure out where they stand on the issue, few have as pat answers as rock singer/songwriter Neil Young. MP3s, he said flatly, offer sub-CD-sound, which doesn't please him. Even CD-quality doesn't make Young, an audiophile, happy. Still, what it boils down to is that artists need to be paid for their work.
"You can't just give it away," he said recently.
But MP3 sharing — for which artists receive no royalties — is only becoming more popular every day, whether artists consent to giving music away or not.
"I think it's going to restructure the way that contracts are written for artists as far as royalties," Chasez said. "I think when an artist delivers an album, he may have to get a flat payment for his work, and then he's just going to have to make his money touring."
Touring's good work — if you can make it profitable. But it's not that easy, according to Supergrass singer Gaz Coombes, who's admittedly bouncing back and forth on the issue.
Maybe there are a million kids who never knew about the Brit-pop act before Napster, he said, and now they're starting to dig the band because they downloaded a copy of "Pumping on Your Stereo" (RealAudio excerpt).
"At the same time, how do you survive, you know?" he asked. "Because you don't make all your money from touring, unless you're the [Rolling] Stones or something. So you have to make the money from doing albums and selling millions of records. It's really hard. If it was really affecting us, I think maybe we'd be doing the same thing that Metallica and Dr. Dre are."
A Potential Backlash
What no one knows yet is whether Metallica or Dr. Dre will experience a backlash from fans for their lawsuits. Metallica also sued three colleges where Napster was popular (the band has since pledged to drop those cases) and also promised to add individual Napster users to the suit in later filings. Members of Metallica are slated to answer fan questions about their case in an online chat Tuesday.
"I do think Metallica overstepped their bounds by suing universities and threatening to sue actual students. That can do nothing but diminish the long-term reputation and thus the sales of Metallica," said Jello Biafra (born Eric Boucher), former lead singer for "Kill the Poor" (RealAudio excerpt) punks the Dead Kennedys.
At the same time, Biafra wondered whether he'll be able to eke out a living as an independent artist if Napster and similar programs such as Gnutella and Scour Exchange are the order of the day.
For many artists, it's a hard call to make. For years, most bands have been accustomed to worrying only about their music while allowing a record company rep to handle the business. Artists are being called on to figure out the future themselves, because no one — not label heads, not tech companies, not fans — has the answers just yet.
For right now, Veruca Salt singer/guitarist Louise Post will take the wait-and-see approach while Metallica and Dr. Dre — musicians that 'N Sync's Chasez called "courageous" — make the first moves.
"Things have spun out of control," she said.