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The History Of The Digital Music Revolution

Most of us, when we were kids, listened to the radio to hear the latest, greatest songs in the music world. We listened eagerly for something new, something original, something our buddies hadn’t heard before, and when a song made its way into our collective conscience, we would wait for hours for our favorite DJ to play the song for us, sometimes even for days, just so we could hit the ‘record’ button and get the thing on tape. At the time, the record companies knew we were taping our favorite music, but they didn’t really care, because the quality of the recording was low and the DJ would more often than not talk over the first and last five seconds of the thing, making it worthless as something to swap or sell. ‘Mix tapes’ were a personal thing, but they couldn’t really compare to the real thing – an LP, or, in later years, a compact disc.

But just as happens with every great hole in supply, eventually technological advances catch up with demand. And so it was that the public’s desire for quality (free) music created the double cassette recorder, which made it possible for us to copy our mix tapes for our friends. The record companies tried to ban these devices, claiming they would lead to the end of the music industry.

But they didn’t… Then video cassette recorders came along, allowing us to record our favorite music videos from MTV and play them endlessly. The music companies didn’t like this either, and tried to get VCRs banned, claiming they would ruin the music industry. But they didn’t… Then along came Compact Discs, which allowed a cleaner recording to audio cassette, and late down the line, CD burners, which allowed people to copy CDs directly. Later still came DVD, and satellite radio.

Everywhere you looked, someone was using new technology to make access to music easier, and everywhere that happened, the music industry tried (timidly) to put a stop to it. And then came Napster. The online music world has led a fraught and tumultuous existence over the past decade. As early as 1996, pioneer internet users were passing around copies of their favorite music using chat servers and email, with equipment and formats that sometimes took as long as a full day just to download one song. But it was Shawn Fanning’s Napster program that, in 1999, brought the ability to download music freely to every net user. Napster provided the means for anyone to log in anonymously, search for their favored songs across millions of users’ hard drives, and download those songs quickly and simply.

The fact that any internet newbie could master Napster in minutes added greatly to its early success, but it was mass collectors, largely operating from university and college computers, who turned the system into one of the biggest buzz-makers in computing history. What Napster did was create a huge central directory of every song owned by users on their system. If you wanted to get a copy of “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow, you would just type the band and song name into Napster, hit ‘search’, and you would be presented with a long list of matches. You then just selected the one you wanted to download, and it would suck down on to your drive.

Of course, when people find a loophole that allows them to get something for nothing, they do often tend to go overboard, and that’s exactly what the community of Napster users did en masse. Instead of just finding the music they needed, users were soon downloading everything they could find, hoarding songs and albums that they had little interest in, just so they could say they had them. It was not uncommon for college students to use multiple computers at their school to download thousands of songs on to CD in a few hours, most of which would never actually be listened to.

This, obviously, annoyed the hell out of the record companies in ways that double cassette recorders never could. While Napster made it clear to users that its service was designed to help users find ‘legal’ music downloads, it also made little effort to stop people from trafficking in pirated material through its system, which led the body that represents the record companies politically, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to take legal action against the company, effectively charging it with mass piracy and the loss of tens of millions of dollars in sales. Interestingly, rather than kill music downloading completely, the court action had the opposite effect, spreading word of Napster across the globe like wildfire, which saw millions of new users sign up even as the creators of the program were fighting to keep the system from closure.

So many people had become addicted to music file-sharing that the prospect of life without Napster seemed a punishment few could take, and so those with the skills began coding Napster alternative programs. Gnutella was an early variant, created by Nullsoft (the company behind the hugely successful WinAmp music software), and though they quickly took the program off the market, hackers and crackers were soon ripping Gnutella to pieces and reconstructing it to suit their needs. Morpheus was soon on the scene, and as Napster began to cooperate with the record companies by filtering out popular song titles from the system, the new program rapidly grew. But Napster’s shift towards cooperation was not enough for the giant music conglomerates, who threw up hurdle after hurdle designed to take Napster out of business.

Even heavy metal group Metallica joined the fray, launching their own lawsuit and earning the rage of many of their fans in the process. Lawyers for the file-sharing software company made the all-too valid point that, if Napster was in any way responsible for the actions of copyright violators, so too were the phone companies that provided the phone lines upon which the music was being shared. They claimed that the ISPs were just as liable as they were, because they didn’t actually house any illegal files on their servers, rather they simply facilitated the searching of said files on other peoples’ computers. We may never know if the judge hearing that particular legal case understood the difference, or merely figured that while Napster wasn’t breaking the law per se, they were acting against the spirit of the law, but either way, the judge told the company in July 2001 that if it couldn’t stop illegal files from being passed through its service, it would have to shut its doors. And that’s what it did, after a judge stopped record company Bertelsman, who had invested heavily in Napster in an effort to legitimize the company, from taking it over. Since Napster shut its doors, the company has since reemerged as a legitimate music download source, albeit with far less success than it enjoyed in the early days, and literally dozens of ‘illegal’ file sharing programs have taken its place to fill the free music download void.

These, such as WinMX, BitLord, Kazaa, Morpheus, BearShare, Aimster, Napigator, AudioGalaxy, and Limewire, run the gamut from useful to useless, but they all share a common element – they take the stance that, if they’re not hosting pirated music, they have nothing to do with those using their systems that do. Translated: Use at your own risk.

www.legal-music-downloads-center.comRichard Adams is a strong supporter of legal mp3s and provides plenty more articles just like this one at his site Legal Music Downloads Center - www.legal-music-downloads-center.com

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