Welcome Back, Napster

All power to the audience


Here's a special reason to be happy that Napster, the notorious outlaw file-sharing system that took a long, court-ordered hiatus, has returned 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 and boring 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 industry-approved 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 pop albums. 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 cheap, 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." Better still, 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 new. One of the great things about the cassette tape decks that first 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 as more technologies allow individuals not simply to copy music but to repurpose it in an infinite number of ways.

Napster and the rest make it that much simpler—and in a fully legal setting. While their offerings are still meager (though growing), these services are an open admission by labels and artists that the terms of cultural exchange have been radically altered in favor of the consumer.

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 visionary geniuses and, especially in the wake of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, they began releasing self-styled song series that gestured toward some sort of grand, if typically inscrutable, aesthetic and thematic unity. 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 critical acclaim and bigger profit margins for LPs, it's clear that artists and labels benefited from the shift away from singles and toward albums. Taking the long view, that's when singles started being phased out as a consumer option, something that was effectively accomplished over the past several 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 million in 2002 before rebounding somewhat to 7.7 for the first half of 2003.

Napster, iTunes, and the rest 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." As important, the new services allow listeners to get album tracks that would never be released as singles.

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 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," pass on what they don't.