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Less-than-zero tolerance

NARAS and the Grammys trip on their own feet-again.

The Grammy Awards have never been known as a bastion of musical hipness, or even of good taste. Most music fans can recall a particularly teeth-grinding Grammy gaffe, whether it’s ragtime novelty Bent Fabric receiving the first rock-designated Grammy or folk-rock softies Jethro Tull being awarded the inaugural Best Heavy Metal Recording award.

But this year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), like the industry it represents, had a golden opportunity to burnish its image, which has taken a severe beating in the downloadable-music wars. It chose instead to propagate misinformation and paranoia. In a 2,000-word diatribe published on the academy’s Web page, President/CEO Michael Greene classified Napster users as “marauders,” “thieves,” and “bandits,” even though according to the letter of current law, they’re anything but.

Greene paints a bleak landscape showing a future in which “free downloadable music is viewed as a constitutional right” and violators build fortunes on the backs of artists denied their intellectual-property rights. The academy’s solution? “[Work] in partnership with music educators and curricular development specialists to help establish a mechanism in the schools to begin the long process of illuminating this important issue for our kids.” NARAS and its member foundations have millions of dollars invested in school music education, which is a good thing indeed. Let’s hope Greene’s words don’t amount to an implicit threat that schools must teach copyright propaganda in order to keep that funding.

Even to someone neutral on the downloadable-music issue, Greene’s screed is inflammatory and offensive on a number of levels. When he isn’t comparing the crusade against Napster to earlier campaigns to reduce littering and smoking, he’s referring to the record industry’s struggle to maintain its obscene profits as a “jihad.” I wonder how Islamic record buyers like having that word bandied about in such a trivial context?

To Greene’s credit, he concedes that the industry was “blindsided” by this phenomenon, and that most pay-based download schemes introduced thus far have been ineffective at best. But for him to write that “content thieves are like strip miners, taking the valuable resources and leaving in their wake an infertile, burned-out wasteland” is to suggest that Napster users are not only inherently crooked, but also that they make up a tightly organized cabal of wily file burglars. The truth is far less dramatic.

An interesting item crossed my desk the other day. The Dave Matthews Band worked with Napster to place on the peer-to-peer site a link to its own Web site as a way to allow fans to listen to the first single off its new album, “Everyday” (which should be in stores by now). The idea was partly a generous gesture to the band’s notoriously hard-core fan base, and partly a way to garner tremendous prerelease word-of-mouth.

Now, I can take or leave Matthews’ music (mostly the latter), but I’ve got to hand it to him for skillfully playing both sides of the street. Not only is he maintaining some credibility by partnering with Napster, but he’s doing so within the boundaries set up by his corporate bosses. The future of online music commerce will be built on such alliances and compromises, not on hardline threats and name-calling.

The Hot List: DreamWorks has come up with a novel way to make free, rare tracks available to fans while promoting new artists. On its Web site, the label offers “three-packs” of free tracks by artists including Powerman 5000, Papa Roach, Buckcherry, Rufus Wainwright, and Elliott Smith. The track by the artist you’ve probably heard of comes bundled with tracks by two others you probably haven’t Not since the halcyon days of LL Cool J. vs. Kool Moe Dee has hip-hop seen a rivalry as entertaining as the one currently raging between Eminem and Everlast. The two have been trading barbs via record for more than a year, and Everlast’s latest salvo, “Whitey’s Revenge,” is available only at his Web site … Among the first artists to adopt the .mu designation for music-related Web sites: Korn, Limp Bizkit, Tupac Shakur, and the Dixie Chicks … Radiohead has posted a version of “National Anthem,” recorded live last fall in Copenhagen, on a number of MP3-related sites, including RioPort.

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