Among veteran digital music fans, it's hard to generate much sympathy for the recording industry.
For years the record producers battled to keep digital music out of the hands of listeners - not just pirates, but legitimate users who were willing to pay for it. At the same time, the industry engaged in a conspiracy to fix the price of its CDs at the retail level, conduct that was outrageous on two counts.
First, it increased the average price of a CD to something approaching $18 when the price of every other form of electronic entertainment was decreasing. Second, it forced customers to buy an inferior product - a dozen bad songs - to get what they wanted: the two or three songs on any album that were worth hearing.
The public responded by stealing the music it liked, song-by-song, through online file-sharing sites and peer-to-peer networks. That cost the record labels billions in lost sales. And it's still going on, shamefully I think, because the industry is finally selling music online at reasonable prices - and increasingly without copy protection.
The question is where the record industry - and its customers - go from here. It's increasingly obvious that the CD is a dying medium. Artists and producers have to come up with a new scheme for creating and distributing music. And we, as customers, have to be willing to pay a fair price for it.
In other words, it's time to start over.
Consider this: Apple announced last week that it had sold 4 billion legitimate tunes through its iTunes online store - a remarkable figure for a marketing technology that wasn't widely available until a few years ago. But it was still a drop in the bucket compared with illegal file-trading - which some sources have estimated as high as 50 billion tunes.
The Chicago Tribune reported last week that overall music sales were down 14 percent in 2007, the seventh yearly decline in a row. The major record labels are panicking - laying off thousands of workers, thinning out their stables of artists and suing thousands of their potential customers in a losing effort to stop Internet trafficking in their songs.
Sales of CDs in particular were down 19 percent, and big-box retailers were making plans to scale back the floor space they devote to the medium. So the industry's traditional unit of sales and artistic effort - the CD album - looks like a goner.
The real problem for the music industry is that there's nothing to replace it yet.
Sales of legitimate digital downloads are beginning to flatten, too. A few big names, most notably Radiohead, are experimenting with releasing their new albums on their own Web sites (Radiohead asked downloaders for a donation and collected millions, all of which it keeps). But that won't work for lesser-known acts.
Some in the business think the answer is the subscription service, a la Rhapsody, which provides customers with all the music they want to play on their PCs or digital players for a flat monthly fee - but only as long as they keep up the payments. Others think the industry may have to give away its music free online and try to sell advertising around it - more like TV and radio.
There's no question that musicians and record labels will have to re-think the way they do business. That means earning their fans' respect and money one tune at a time.
This is a true back-to-the-future movement. When I was growing up in the '50s and '60s, artists regularly released "singles," as they were known, usually on 45 rpm vinyl records. When singers or group had a few hits under their belts, they could package them with a handful of covers, B-side tunes and one or two new songs into an album. In fact, the modern "album" was a creation of what was then a new technology: the 33 1/3 rpm "long-playing" stereophonic record.
Many music historians credit The Beatles with changing the business landscape for everyone with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - the first megahit album conceived as a unified artistic work. The problem - few groups, including The Beatles ever afterward, could come up with 12 or 14 songs at a time that were worth listening to on one recording.
But the business model held up - as long as the industry had a lock on the physical medium of its recordings. That's gone now, and it's not clear what will take its place.
Mark Cuban, the Internet broadcasting pioneer and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, came up with one intriguing scenario in a posting on blogmaverick.com entitled "The Album is Dead ... ".
Citing a Billboard report showing that the song "Low Rider" by Flo Rida had sold 467,000 units in a single week - one of 27 digital downloads with sales of over 100,000 during that period - Cuban concluded that "people are ready, willing and able to buy singles of songs they like."
So he asked, "Why not create a 'season' of release of songs, much like the fall TV season, and promise fans that Flo Rida is going to release a new single every week or two weeks for the next 10 weeks"
"If an artist commits to release music on a weekly or biweekly basis, then consumers can make a commitment knowing they are going to get something new and hopefully exciting for their 99 cents. If the commitment is strong enough, it's feasible that artists could sell subscriptions. ... My guess is that consumers will feel better about subscribing to an artist and getting a song a week or every 2 than dropping 10 dollars at a time for an album."
Would it work? Who knows? But with the tyranny of the CD broken and millions of songs available without copy protection for a buck or less, it's time for the public to do its share and stop stealing music.
More back-to-the-future: My column on hooking up old PCs to new HDTV sets drew advice from a reader named Ron, who connected a computer to his new set and, on a whim, tried running one of those old aquarium screen savers. He loved it: "It is the easiest fish tank to take care of. I plan on keeping one of my very old laptops connected to the TV just for this feature."
Just remember, you read it here.