Music for Nothing

Why Napster isn’t the end of the world. Or even the music industry.

(Page 3 of 4)

Assume, for the sake of argument, that the industry’s charges are true: that copying really is stealing, and that Napster is merely a giant burglary machine. Why, then, have so many people used it anyway? It is a matter of faith in some circles that America is undergoing a massive moral decline, but in fact, people don’t seem more prone to stealing now than in the past. Indeed, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, property crime has been declining for more than 20 years. Why would someone who won’t shoplift be more likely to use a file-swapping program?

The cynical answer is: Because he can. That is, given a choice between getting music for free or paying for it, people will take the freebie, especially if there’s little risk involved. Obviously, there’s some truth to this.

The most common answer among Napster’s defenders is: So he can sample music before he buys it. There’s some truth to this as well. Radio, constrained by narrow, boring formats, ignores the vast majority of music being made. Even hit songs are served up when the schedule dictates it, not when the listener wants to hear them.

With little more than anecdotal evidence to go by–there’s been no shortage of studies on the subject, but they’ve reached radically different conclusions, and most have obvious flaws–it’s unclear how many users see Napster as a substitute for the CD store and how many see it as a substitute for radio. It’s clear, though, that both species of listener exist. And for whatever it’s worth–not much, probably, given that Napster use isn’t widespread enough to make a difference yet–music sales have continued to increase since the program debuted.

Indeed, file trading may be a much bigger threat to the broadcast business than it is to the recording industry. Even as CD sales are going up, radio audiences have been shrinking. With online file trading emerging as a workable alternative to traditional radio, the latter trend may well continue. Napster may not offer the spontaneity and serendipity that’s possible on radio–but these days, most radio stations don’t either.

There’s a third answer that’s often ignored: Because it gives him more options. In this model, the online music trade is a revolt against packaging, with consumers acquiring individual songs that they want rather than filler-heavy albums that they don’t, creating do-it-yourself compilations and sometimes altering the music to comic or otherwise creative effect. (One grassroots mix, splicing the famously profane rapper Eminem’s hit "The Real Slim Shady" with Britney Spears’ sugary "Oops! I Did It Again," was sufficiently popular to get mentioned in the British tabloid New Musical Express.) A unitary product–the prepackaged album–is replaced with a collection of loose parts that listeners may rearrange at will.

Which bringsus back to Metallica, a band whose attacks on Napster are gradually mutating into attacks on its own file-swapping fans. "If you don’t have enough respect for the fact that I believe this way," drummer Ulrich announced on The Charlie Rose Show, "and that I have a right to challenge it…I don’t want you as a fan." (That isn’t exactly an expert approach to public relations, though it’s an open question whether it will hurt the band or merely take its place next to Johnny Rotten’s spittle in rock’s grand tradition of contempt for the audience.) At another point in the interview, Ulrich claimed–rather dubiously–that the key issue for him wasn’t the potential loss of money but the loss of control. One could easily reverse that: The digital music bazaar doesn’t merely save fans money; it gives them a new measure of control over the product. And though the big labels aren’t happy about the prospects of losing money, they’ve often attacked this audience autonomy as well.

They have constantly battled the best digital music format, the MP3 file, on the grounds that the ease with which it is copied makes it ideal for piracy. What have they pushed instead? A succession of cumbersome copy-protected formats that would make it difficult to transfer music from one player to another, a handicap for anyone who wants to listen to the same song at home, in the office, and in the car. Needless to say, none of those formats have caught on.

Meanwhile, despite the obvious demand Napster represents for a market in individual songs, the big labels have been slow to respond: Not surprisingly, they’d rather charge $18 for 12 songs than $1 for one. (CD singles exist, but only as a misnomer–they’re more like old-fashioned EPs.) Several companies, such as CDNow, have offered shoppers the chance to create customized CDs, but each offers only a small catalog of tracks to choose from. With Napster, by contrast, you can find thousands of tracks for free.

Indeed, it’s unclear at this point whether it’s possible to establish an online version of a singles market, now that Net surfers are getting accustomed to free music. EMusic, which lets you download individual songs for 99 cents and full albums for $8.99, hasn’t been able to turn a profit, due in part to its limited catalog but also in part to competition from the file-trading programs. By July, the company had grown sufficiently disillusioned with its original business model that it added a subscription-based service to its wares.

If You Can’t Beat ’Em…

This spring, the Evolution Control Committee, an obscure band from Ohio, decided to spread its song "Rocked by Rape" via Napster. It did this by renaming the file to look like rare tracks from popular bands. Other artists soon adopted the practice–dubbed Napster bombing in the press–while foes of free music put mislabeled recordings of silence or cacophony into the system. Apparently, the same qualities that make Napster and Gnutella so subversive also make them easy to subvert.

Would it be possible to create a more controlled system, one that weeds out such pranks, guarantees file quality, sorts songs by genre, offers taste-based recommendations, or otherwise provides services that listeners might be willing to pay for? Sure. If you want to stop Napster, don’t sue it; try to out-compete it. File searchers who don’t want to pay anything for music could still use Gnutella or a program like it, with the tradeoff of not always getting what they want–much as home tapers have sacrificed a certain level of quality and convenience in exchange for not paying high CD prices. Those who’d rather not make that sacrifice could use the controlled services, with a portion of their subscription fees going to the artists who make the music they download.

If, that is, subscribers download the music at all. With a stable, legal mechanism for distributing music online, many listeners might prefer to stream music from a vast digital jukebox instead.

Simultaneously, with the Internet and other technologies sharply reducing production and distribution costs, it would become easier for artists to release music without going through a big label, or to extract a better deal from one of those labels, or to team with other musicians to create a cooperative label of their own. Indeed, the most logical source of new material for a subscription-based service may be the artists themselves, not the labels who currently own most of their "rights."

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