Recorded music pretty much dropped out of my life during the 1990s. After years of spending most of my disposable income buying music and much of my personal and professional life listening to it, I don't think I purchased more than a handful of records or CDs during the whole decade.
These days, I'm back to something like my old habits. What ended my long quiet period speaks to the issues surrounding Mike Godwin's cover piece, "Hollywood vs. the Internet: Why entertainment companies want to hack your computer" (page 26). What Godwin dubs "the Content Faction" is understandably scared to death of computer users' ability to make and disseminate nearly perfect copies of music, video, books, and other copyrighted material. But he argues that in pursuing a repressive legislative and technological fix—one that might change the very way computers are made—the Content Faction may well shoot itself in the foot.
My own experience suggests he's right. Back in the late 1980s, I worked at a couple of now-defunct music magazines: a heavy metal mag called Metallix that promised readers, "It'll rock you to shreds!" and an American version of the British pop mag Smash Hits. Between professional contacts and personal penchants, I soon amassed a sizable music collection that included over 5,000 records, at least 1,000 prerecorded tapes, and hundreds of relatively novel CDs.
Then I decided to run away from my low-level job in the rock 'n' roll circus, where journalists are the equivalent of the clowns who follow after elephants with a shovel and wheelbarrow. I went to grad school, a move that both ended my ride on the industry gravy train and robbed me of disposable income for a number of years.
Over time, I sold off parts of my collection and gave away most of the rest, perpetually in need of cash and tired of lugging milk crates heavy with LPs from apartment to apartment and city to city. When I could finally afford to buy music again, my interest had waned, partly because I couldn't find an easy way to hunt down what I wanted. And as I spent an increasing number of hours staring at a computer screen, I couldn't find a format that fit well with my new work habits.
Until Napster. I came to the controversial file sharing system in late 1999, a few months after it was first up and running. Napster gave me a quick and easy way to remember what I was missing, and I started downloading songs, both old and new. Soon, I was buying music again and piping it through my computer, most typically as MP3s I ripped from new CDs I bought and then put on my hard drive in personalized playlists—uses that will almost certainly be impossible if the Content Faction gets its way.
Had Napster, whose site remains dark as it works out a licensing arrangement with the big record labels, not existed, I would never have found my way back to buying music. From any number of conversations I've had and accounts I've read, my experience is far from sui generis. Indeed, there are strong reasons to believe that the outlaw Napster actually increased the demand for fully legit music.
Yet as Godwin notes, another Napster is precisely what media companies want to avoid at all cost. Without getting into important questions of intellectual property rights, this much seems likely: If the entertainment industry succeeds in strictly limiting how consumers can manipulate the content they buy, consumers will pay in the short term. But in a world in which people have come to expect individualized control and proliferating choices in everything from personal lifestyles to entertainment, it will be the companies who pay the steeper price in the long term.