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ALEX MARSH: Return to Penny Lane

I was first seduced by the sounds of the Beatles as a six-year old, when I swiped a dusty stack of 45-rpm records out of my older brother's bedroom and played them over and over on a second-hand, portable, mono record player.

At that age, as my head was filled with images of the idyllic street described in McCartney's "Penny Lane," the concept of paying for music was as foreign to me as filing tax returns. My first listening experiences were pure joy and awe, and they didn't cost a cent. They were priceless.

Decades later, I'm saddened to read of a Native American single mother in Minnesota, who makes $36,000 a year, getting fined $222,000 for illegally sharing copyrighted music online.

First of all, wouldn't it have been more strategic for the authorities to have picked a different person to make an example of? Was it too hard to catch a coked-up, white kid in a wealthy suburb, illegally downloading the latest My Chemical Romance tracks to his brand new iPhone? How does bankrupting this woman engender sympathy for the record industry?

Public relations misfires aside, the real irony here is that record companies created the monster which is now devouring them. The digital formatting of music, which enables illegal copying and sharing of songs today, was actually forced upon the record-buying public in the mid-1980s.

I remember it well. As a teenager, I was quite happy buying vinyl records for about $7.99 each. The sound quality was good, the cover art was large and colorful, and you could make cassettes of records to listen to in your car, boom box or walkman. Consumers weren't complaining. Record companies were making healthy profits, but apparently that wasn't enough for them.

Around 1987, I walked into my favorite record store and there was no more vinyl! Instead, compact discs had replaced the records, promising superior sound quality, durability and convenience. Oh, and the price more than doubled to $17.99, for no valid reason.

So, what choice did I have? Like everyone else, I went out and plopped down $200 for a CD player and started buying CDs. The sound quality on those early CDs was awful; cold, tinny and compressed. And they weren't durable or convenient. If you so much as looked at them the wrong way, or God forbid, drop one, they would easily scratch and sometimes break.

As my favorite vinyl records wore out, I started replacing them with CD versions, and then, in the mid-90's, I replaced those horrid first-generation CDs with newly remastered versions that essentially just recaptured the warmer sound quality that vinyl records had.

Did the CD prices come down as more people jumped on the bandwagon? Not really. We all got played like a violin by the record companies. They convinced us to buy the same albums we already owned, over and over again, at twice the price!

What the record companies didn't foresee is that the binary data which comprises a digital music track, those little zeros and ones they forced upon us, would one day become the music fan's ticket to ride.

Now, we can burn copies of CDs from our friends, share them online, copy them to our iPods, all for free. Is it illegal? Sometimes. Is it immoral? Ask Robin Hood. We're all finally getting some of the money back that we forked over for decades.

The artists who live in Beverly Hills don't seem to be struggling, and they're still charging us more money than ever for concert tickets. I sleep well at night. I'm sure there are some former record company workers in the unemployment line, but as someone who works in the newspaper industry, I'll soon be joining them. I'll have my iPod with me, 80 gigabytes and growing daily.