Local company tracks music downloaded from Internet
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

As the music industry continues its war against Internet file-sharing, and tens of millions of downloaders continue to ignore the record labels' efforts, a group of Atlantans stand on the sidelines and keep track of what's at stake.

In a nondescript cubicle farm in a suite at Colony Square, a company called BigChampagne is monitoring what file-sharers on systems like Kazaa and Morpheus are looking for. The data races across computer screens faster than the human brain can process it -- Dave Matthews, Jennifer Lopez, Moby, Pink, Infectious Grooves, Tony Bennett, Eminem, Elton John, the Dixie Chicks. They want it now, and they want it free.

"Sometimes it's kind of overwhelming -- we're seeing 25 million searches a day," says Adam Toll, chief operations officer for BigChampagne.

What Nielsen is to TV ratings, BigChampagne is to the increasingly important measurement of what people are downloading on the Internet. And if you use Kazaa, Morpheus, Limewire or one of the major file-sharing programs, BigChampagne is watching you.

"This is where the action is," says Craig Marks, editor of Blender music magazine, about the importance of tracking music downloading.

After CD sales fell almost 11 percent in 2002, Hillary Rosen, chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America, blamed Internet file-sharing for much of the decline. Citing RIAA surveys, she told an industry conference recently, "Our younger buyers are telling us they are buying significantly less albums because they're finding what they want on the Internet."

No one knows exactly how many people download music or how much, but there are about 20 million people doing it every month. Forrester Research estimates 40 percent of adult Americans have downloaded music from the Internet.

But even as the labels and many musicians, from Jay Z to Madonna, condemn downloading, some of them pay BigChampagne to tell them what's going on in the hard-to-pin-down netherworld of file-sharing. The 2 1/2-year-old company, with 16 employees between Atlanta and Los Angeles, was named from a lyric in a Peter Tosh reggae song, "Downpresser Man." (NielsenNet, a sister company of the TV ratings tracker, gathers some of the same information as BigChampagne, but it's tracking Internet usage, not just file-sharing.)

"We work with all the major labels in the music business," says Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, who's based in Los Angeles. "We work a lot with radio, and dozens of individual artists and their management."

The labels won't admit they use BigChampagne the way TV networks use Nielsen ratings because it might be seen as condoning file-sharing -- and BigChampagne won't name its clients or say how many they have because confidentiality is part of the deal. But "some of the labels [use BigChampagne to] let us know when one of the artists we are playing has heavy file-swapping in Atlanta," says Leslie Fram, director of programming for local stations 99X and Q100. A spokesman for a major music conglomerate confirms some labels use BigChampagne extensively but would not speak on the record.

"[The labels] can't publicly admit it," says Blender editor Marks, "but this is better information than they can get from SoundScan," the service that registers official, in-store CD sales.

Using special software and massive servers and bandwidth, BigChampagne tracks two aspects of file-sharing: users' searches and their individual "folders" of the music they have to share on their computer hard drives. "There is no way to catalog everything," says Garland. "What you want is statistically representative. You don't have to open the door of every last dorm room."

By monitoring searches, BigChampagne can tell the labels whether consumers are looking for a particular song or a particular artist. Users sometimes search for a particular musician -- Garland mentions Eminem and Josh Groban -- because they want to download everything from them.

In general, however, people search for specific songs. "A song can be quite popular online and people download it but nobody goes to buy it," says Garland. "They don't know who does it, or they think somebody else does it." That, of course, is a record label's worst nightmare.

As the millions of searches pour through BigChampagne's computers, it's obvious that movie and TV studios are joining the record industry in a joint nightmare. Users are swapping massive video files of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," two films still playing in theaters.

"People love to trade 'The Sopranos' and 'The Simpsons'. 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is huge," says Toll.

"The number of titles people are sharing has gone up," he adds. "I'm seeing more and more feature-length films" being shared.

And while file-sharing movies and TV series has the studios concerned, it's another potential revenue source for BigChampagne. Currently its clients are mostly in the music industry, Toll says, but the company is talking to the studios about what's going on online as well and plans to expand into reporting video file-sharing.

BigChampagne doesn't side with either the industry or the downloaders; it just tracks what's going on. Garland says he understands the labels' point of view: "Wait a minute! They smashed in the shop window and made off with our goods!"

But despite the industry efforts in court to shut down systems like Kazaa, "file-sharing is not going to go away," says Toll. "It's here to stay."

ON THE WEB: For more information: www.bigchampagne.com

The 10 most popular songs being downloaded using file-sharing (according to BigChampagne), as compared with the Billboard magazine Top 10 singles.