The music industry is at it again. They"re trying to blame everyone but themselves for the steep drop in album sales, and now they want to come after you. If you"re one of the people who occasionally downloads songs from Kazaa or another file-sharing service, the Recording Industry Association of America wants to talk to you. Last week, a U.S. District Court judge ordered an Internet service provider to reveal the name of one of its users who had downloaded some 600 songs in a single day. The RIAA"s president said, "We look forward to contacting the account holder whose identity we were seeking so we can let them know that what they are doing is illegal." If you think they"re going to stop there, you"re dead wrong. The next step for the RIAA is to remotely scan users" hard drives and attempt to make them pay for each MP3 stored there. When times get tough, the temptation is to look for an easy scapegoat, and the RIAA wants to use the Internet as its scapegoat. Obviously, they have to do something. Sales of CDs and tapes were down 11 percent in the first half of 2002, after a 3 percent drop in 2001. Meanwhile, sales of blank CDs is up substantially. The biggest selling CD of 2002 - Eminem"s The Eminem Show - sold about 6 million copies since its release last spring. But the DVD of the movie Spider-Man sold 7 million copies in its first day of release. Video games and DVDs now routinely outsell even the most popular CDs. Meanwhile, the music industry has been searching for 20 years to find an artist who can sell tens of millions of CDs, like Michael Jackson did in the early 1980s. For a while, teen pop artists were all the rage, but their popularity has faded as their fans have matured. And, by concentrating on the 12-18 market, the music industry has pretty much ignored older artists and listeners. Some of the best-selling artists of the last few years have been the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Tupac Shakur, all of whose ability to produce new product is impossible. There are no mega-superstars on the horizon except Eminem. So what can an industry that"s dying do? Attack the few rabid fans left who still care about popular music and hope in vain that the new technology goes away. People who download music do so because it"s convenient and it"s free. Given the choice of paying $16 for an album with perhaps two good tracks on it, most people will download the two tracks for free and save their money for an album they know will be good. Trouble is, the major labels haven"t been releasing good albums for quite some time now. With a few major exceptions, the labels have been releasing crap they think is commercial, or, alternatively, repackaging the material of deeply-beloved-but-long-dead artists. So hard-core Tupac fans like me will buy the new collections of unreleased music but pass on buying the music of an unknown artist. Watching an entire industry self-destruct like this is painful for someone like me, who"s spent a career writing about and following music. But unless they do something quick, the major record labels could go the way of the Studebaker. "I can"t believe that the business I"ve spent my life with could be about to disappear," Billboard Editor Timothy White told Wired mag. "And I also can"t believe it"s happening so fast." Using the courts to punish users of Kazaa is just a short-term fix. Kazaa emerged after Napster was shut down. And if the RIAA succeeds in closing down Kazaa, another service will take its place. What the music industry needs to do is adopt some of the traits of the services they"re trying so desperately to close. Instead of making the Spider-Man soundtrack album cost more than the DVD, make CD prices reasonable. Most people would pay a small fee to download high-quality versions of the songs they like. But the music industry"s download sites have been pricey and unreliable, forcing people to use Kazaa and Napster to get their music digitally. Even if all the file-sharing sites closed tomorrow, the music industry would still have to deal with a public that, by and large, is disinterested in the products they offer. By offering more and more variations of the same tired artists, the labels have alienated an entire generation of listeners. The good news is that even as music sales have plummeted, interest in music is still high. Look at the increased attendance around the country at small venues featuring local bands. Bluegrass musicians are drawing fans, as are metal, rap and blues bands. We may not need the music industry after all. Prince fans can go to his Web site and buy his latest music. Phish phreaks can do the same for their idols. The price of manufacturing CDs has fallen dramatically in the last five years, which means anyone with a demo and a dream can sell their music to people who want it. When you buy an album from a local musician, or even a Phish album off their Web site, you can be sure the artist gets most of the money, as opposed to the 75 cents to a buck an artist on a major label takes home. There is no easy solution for the myriad of problems the music industry faces today. But by punishing music downloaders, they"ll likely succeed only in widening and deepening the grave the music industry has been digging itself for years now.