"Napster," Mitch said with contempt, in much the same way you might say "Nazi skinhead" or "Jesse Helms".

Mitch is a working musician. He puts in long, hard hours in his home studio making music that he's passionate about and which he hopes to make a living from. A few months ago he had to sell his entire CD collection to make ends meet. In other words, he is not Metallica, though Metallica was probably like this once.

"A bunch of musicians I know submit defective tracks to Napster," he said. "There's no way to verify the quality of what you're downloading, and most people just grab them indiscriminately. So they'll record three and a half minutes of white noise and label it as some Marilyn Manson song or whatever. Or have the song cut out halfway through. Within minutes it's been downloaded by hundreds of people. Others download it from them, and eventually there are thousands of copies floating around of this useless track."

I didn't say anything. I was thinking of the version of 'Born To Be Wild' I'd snagged online, the one that ended three-fourths of the way through.

"It's a way to get back at all these people who are ripping us off," he continued. "They don't realize that we aren't just doing this for fun; this is our work." He shook his head, the very picture of someone who feels he has been Fucked Over. "Music ain't free, kiddies," he said finally.

I considered debating the point, mentally marshaling the usual pro-Napster arguments, but just then they all sounded lame to me. I thought about the ten CDs worth of music I'd downloaded and burned a few months before, and about the people who'd made that music. However famous or obscure, they were probably a lot like my friend Mitch; ordinary men and women whose product, into which they'd poured years of blood and sweat, is being blithely copied around by people who not only won't pay for it but self-righteously proclaim that they're seizing the moral high ground in doing so. Hell, if I were them I'd probably be pissed too.

Who is the counterculture here, I wondered? Napster users sticking it to the Man by refusing to pay the record companies' ridiculously inflated prices for music? Or Mitch's friends, working-class pranksters throwing a wrench into the brave new world of the "free music" digerati?

All I knew is, I suddenly felt a lot less cool.