Here's one reason to be happy that Napster, the notorious outlaw file-sharing system that took a long, court-ordered hiatus, is now back as a major-label-backed enterprise offering single-track downloads for 99 cents. The new—some might say neutered—Napster makes it that much easier for music lovers everywhere to never, ever again have to suffer through "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," the execrable, boring, stupid song that all but ruins one of the great albums of the rock era, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks (1975).
Napster and its similarly above-board counterparts such as iTunes, RealOne Rhapsody, and Pressplay, accomplish this feat by focusing the Internet dynamic of "disintermediation"—cutting out middlemen and empowering cultural consumers over producers—on a new target. Like their unauthorized predecessors, these services de-bundle music CDs and let listeners purchase only the songs they want. That means that I can plunk down a few dollars and easily create a customized version of Blood on the Tracks, one that includes highlights (to me, anyway) such as "Tangled Up in Blue," "Simple Twist of Fate," and "Idiot Wind." More important, it means I can definitively skip "Lily," a nine-minute-long, tub-thumping Old West ballad about a whore, a diamond mine owner, and a suspiciously high-tech bank robbery. No more cringing at desperate rhymes such as "Be careful not to touch the wall, there's a brand new coat of paint/I'm glad to see you're still alive, you're looking like a saint" and "He went to get the hanging judge but the hanging judge was drunk/As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk." Sweet freedom, indeed.
To be sure, this sort of liberation from the dictates of uneven artists and rapacious record labels is not exactly new. One of the liberating elements of the cassette tape decks that became widely available in the '70s was precisely that they allowed people to make personal mixes of prerecorded music. That's something that has only become easier with increases in technology that allow individuals not simply to copy music but to repurpose it in an infinite number of ways. That Napster and the rest now facilitate this process in a fully legal setting is effectively an open admission by labels and artists that the terms of cultural exchange have been radically altered.
For much of the 1950s and '60s, most pop LPs had been collections of hits or, more commonly, one or two popular songs surrounded by what everyone—label, artist, and listener alike—knew was throwaway filler. By the mid-'60s, however, a different type of oppression reigned supreme. Performers increasingly saw themselves as not just singers in rock and roll bands but visionary geniuses; they began releasing self-styled song series that gestured toward some sort of grand, if typically inscrutable, aesthetic and thematic unity. The watershed moment came in 1967, with the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that still routinely tops best-of lists despite boasting such groaners as "Within You, Without You," and "She's Leaving Home." Even when they weren't full-blown concept albums or (god forbid) rock operas, post-Pepper's LPs demanded to be experienced in full; to skip tracks or to listen to them out of order was like screwing with Shakespeare. There was shame not just in being a "singles band" but in being a "singles fan."
Given the greater profit margins on LPs, it's clear that artists and labels benefited from the shift away from singles and toward albums. (Actually, given the reality that most major-label artists never earn royalties on record sales and that the average track on the new records was not necessarily any better than on the old haphazard collections, the labels may have been the only ones to benefit). Taking the long view, that's when singles started being phased out as a consumer option, something that was effectively accomplished over the past five years. According to industry figures, about 109 million CD and cassette singles were shipped to retailers in 1997, a figure that had dropped to 4.0 million in 2002.
Napster, iTunes, and the rest definitively change all that. While consumers can download whole albums for about $10 a throw, individual tracks are where all the action is, for obvious reasons. As music industry analyst Mike Goodman told Wired News, "An album is…two songs you like and seven or eight you don't….With a single, you're purchasing exactly what you want."
There's little doubt that the new, legit services will help artists and labels recoup some chunk of the $1 billion in annual losses that have been unconvincingly attributed to unauthorized swaps via renegade operations such as Kazaa Grokster, and Morpheus. That's all well and good, but the real payoff is for music lovers who can now more easily get what they want. Or in the case of "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," ignore what they don't.