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The Boston Phoenix Long Live Napster!

Digital-file trading is here to stay

By Douglas Wolk

AUGUST 7, 2000:  I listen to unauthorized MP3s that I get over the Web, and I'm proud of it. The music industry and some actual musicians think that makes me their worst, scariest enemy. They couldn't be more wrong.

Before I explain why, though, let me offer a short primer, since a lot of those people who've been freaked out by Napster (and the second-generation file-trading programs that got a big boost from the injunction against it last week) are under the impression that it's some kind of grand-scale lock pick for breaking into artists' homes. Sounds appear on CDs as encoded digital files that use a lot of memory. MP3 represents a different way of encoding sounds so that they occupy roughly a tenth as much memory. The result doesn't sound as good, but it's a lot smaller, and therefore easier to trade over the Internet. Sound-file trading has been going on for years and has never previously been considered too big a deal; it's an infringement on the order of taping records for friends (which at one time was also considered an industry-threatening practice).

What Napster created was a centralized database for people who wanted to trade their files, which means it's made an enormous amount of stuff available to people with high-speed connections, lots of free time, a reasonable degree of facility with computers, and not very much money -- i.e., college students and a few others. Napster is used to trade freely distributed, legal MP3s, as well as pirated, copyrighted material. It is this latter, technically illegal use that I'll argue is simply not a big deal.

Napster is a grand table of contents for parts of its users' hard drives that they've chosen to make public. The effect has been described as like living in a great big communal dorm with housemates who will gladly lend you their CDs so you can tape your favorite songs. Or a radio station that will play pretty much anything on demand as long as it's not too old or too obscure and you're willing to wait a little while for it. If I want to hear, say, Bob Dylan's never officially released but much lauded "I'm Not There," I type "dylan not there" into a Napster-compatible application; it locates a handful of copies on computers all over the world. I pick one that's got a high-speed connection and link directly to that user's hard drive, and a few minutes later an MP3 of the song is sitting on my own desktop.

Easy, right? But substitute the title of your favorite Metallica or Dr. Dre song and you've got a recipe for some panicked lawsuits, as well as widespread snickering on the part of the Internet community. (The best example of the latter so far: paylars.com, where you can make a donation to help reimburse Metallica for the income the band feel they've lost to MP3 piracy. In three months, the site has raised just over $500.) Napster hasn't committed any copyright infringements itself -- it's simply made it easier for a lot of individuals to commit such infringements.

Still, the music industry is terrified. And you can understand why. An analysis commissioned by the industry, as reported in the Village Voice, frets that Web piracy might eat up as much as 16 percent of US music-biz profits within two years. Then again, SoundScan's latest quarterly figures show that music sales are up eight percent over the last year, and though recording-industry spokesperson Alex Walsh complained to Wired News that the industry doesn't know how much more profit there might have been but for Web piracy, that argument is moot because it's incapable of demonstration. In the meantime, the industry has been trying for years to come to a consensus on SDMI, or Secure Digital Music Initiative, an encryption system to prevent digital music from being replicated. It has failed to reach that consensus in part because there can be no such thing. Yes, in theory you can make it tougher to translate an encoded piece of music directly into a functional MP3. But sound is not like computer software, where every bit counts: if you can hear something, you can make a functional sound file out of it in the format of your choice and trade it at will. Same thing goes for the industry's latest scheme, "digital watermarking."

And that's the biggest problem with complaining about Napster, or guided one-to-one digital audio transmission in general. It's fruitless, regardless of the ethical questions Napster raises. Demanding royalties every time a song is reproduced or played in private simply isn't possible. Audio trading is here to stay; the genie is out of the bottle. Even if Napster gets shut down for good, we'll still have the next generation of MP3 search-and-collect mechanisms, like Gnutella (http://gnutella.wego.com), which works like Napster but is networked rather than centralized, which means it can no more be sued or shut down than the Internet itself. The facilitated trading of sound files is not a threat, or even a possibility that's open to debate -- it's now a fact of life. And those who think their livelihoods may be affected by it had better start thinking about how they can use this fact to their advantage.

This reality is not nearly as scary for record companies as it sounds. Users of file-trading programs can now hear any Pearl Jam song they want, without paying for it, as long as they're willing to put up with the hassle and the relatively murky audio. Does this mean that they now have no reason to buy a Pearl Jam CD? Absolutely not. They'll gladly shell out $17.98 -- not for the music but for an artifact, a nicely packaged product in a high-quality pressing with artwork and liner notes and, not incidentally, the implied promise that part of their money will go to the people responsible for it. A dozen new Pearl Jam songs downloaded as MP3s, converted to AIFF files, and burned onto a CD-R is not the same thing as a pirated, fully packaged copy of the artifact whose profit goes into somebody else's pocket.

Two points about human nature vis-à-vis consumer culture are relevant here. The first is that people like getting stuff free. The second is that people like to shop. We like to spend our money on artifacts that are meaningful to us; we are more likely to trust and value something we've paid for. You can give away all the free crude versions of something you like, but make a nicely packaged commercial version available and people will still buy it, just to have the official thing. Software manufacturers know this; they distribute "light" but functional versions of their software free to get people into the habit of using it, then clean up on the official, enhanced versions. And other fields are starting to catch on. Virtually anyone who might be interested in Neal Stephenson's book In the Beginning Was the Command Line will have the capacity to download the whole thing for free from cryptonomicon.com. But it hasn't sold at all badly as a $10 paperback, with a binding and nice paper and good printing and an attractive cover design.

This is the impulse that record labels must appeal to now. It's certain that there will be some file traders whose main use for Napster or Gnutella is straight-up piracy; that's always been the case with home taping of records, though, and file trading has cut into that practice, too. (Remember that "Home Taping Is Killing Music" campaign from 15 or so years ago? Music somehow refused to die.) But it's equally certain that many people will use these programs as a shopping tool, a way of deciding where their CD-buying dollars are going to go, especially for music they can't hear on the radio or elsewhere. Being able to hear something before you buy it will make the market more efficient: things will be tougher for established artists coasting on subpar work, easier for relatively unknown artists in whose discs listeners would otherwise be reluctant to invest. How many artists would object to having a radio station play their song any time someone requested it? How is that different from being able to get a taped-off-the-radio-at-best-quality copy of the same song from Napster?

That brings us to the other commonplace about digital-file trading, that it will ultimately hurt artists. But as the Onion's "Kid Rock Starves to Death: MP3 Piracy Blamed" (at http://www.theonion.com/onion3618/kid_rock_starves.html) makes clear, that's a doubtful scenario. Even if the widespread trading of high-quality audio files actually does cut into record sales, there are two reasons -- dirty little secrets of the music business -- why artists won't suffer.

The first is that singles don't make money. They're loss leaders, a way of reinforcing an artist's name; often they're practically given away. Digital-file trading achieves the goal of distributing single-like tastes of an album, and it spares the record company the costs of manufacturing. (Record companies don't crack down on those people who make and sell hip-hop mix tapes; in fact, they often give them free advance recordings, because it's a form of promotion that costs them nothing.) The second and more important reason is that very, very few recording artists receive a significant proportion of their music-related income from record sales. They make money from personal appearances, from publishing deals, from merchandise, from licensing their work for commercial exploitation in advertisements or movies or on TV. That's not likely to change. The value of a copyright in a sound recording is really not so much in its literal meaning -- the right to reproduce it -- but rather in the right to reproduce or use it for commercial gain.

I'm not a professional musician, but I am a professional creator of media. I do this for a living. If private individuals want to e-mail anything I've published to all their friends, or to any stranger who might request it from them, as far as I'm concerned, they're more than welcome to -- and the manuscript for my next book is a much smaller file than a three-minute MP3. Where I make my money is in the commercial use of my work, and in commissions; I encourage anything that spreads my name and work around on a personal level, because that's the wisest strategy for anyone engaged in creative endeavors, and also for the companies that profit by those endeavors. To put both Metallica's lawsuit and the RIAA's in context, imagine that I discover people are making unauthorized photocopies of articles I've written and I respond by suing whoever makes the fastest, highest-end photocopy machine on the market.

At its worst, the panic over Napster is a smokescreen to cover up what's really wrong with the music industry. Courtney Love put it nicely at the Digital Hollywood Conference a few months ago: "Digital distribution gives everyone worldwide instant access to music. . . . So that there's no confusion, I want to clarify that stealing an artist's music without paying for it is piracy. And I'm talking about major-label contracts, not Napster."


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