Napster restores music's excitement
The Early Essays
I wasn't around last spring for the music-swapping craze that clogged the University bandwidth, and, in the end, forced Notre Dame to ban Napster from network computers. I was abroad in London. But when I returned stateside in May, Napster's battle with the Recording Industry Association of America was big news.
After my sister got me up to speed (she didn't really understand how the service worked but, she certainly grasped what it could offer: unlimited free music), I immediately logged on Napster and was impressed by its extensive and efficient library of songs. I downloaded a song by Nick Drake, a British songwriter I'd read good things about. Twenty minutes later I listened to the song. I liked it. Later that week I bought the CD.
This, you see, is the heart of the controversy. Does Internet music swapping encourage or deter record sales? In my case, Napster provoked a sale that might not have occurred. Napster purports that music swapping "facilitates communication between people interested in music" that will, in the end, strengthen the music industry. They explain music swapping with words like "sample," "preview" or "sharing."
The RIAA objects to Napster's diction, choosing more incriminating words such as "piracy," "theft" and "copyright infringement" to describe the rampant digital bootlegging over the past year. A San Francisco judge will have the final say, perhaps very soon, but, whatever the specific decision on Napster, a handful of clones are waiting to scoop up Napster's seven million users should Napster orphan them. Legislate all you want, the Internet will not go away. And, until piracy technology catches up to copyright technology, those who earn a living from copyright enforcement are in danger.
The record companies realize this, so as their lawyers battle with Napster in California courtrooms, their executives are searching for alternative revenue models. Not surprisingly, what they've come up with follows Napster's lead: digital music exchange over the Internet, but on a pay-per-download or subscription basis.
Another alternative, much less attractive to the major music labels, has the artist releasing a portion of his song to the public for free, then asking for money from anyone who downloads it. If the artist receives enough money, he releases the rest of the song. If not, the public could be stuck with half a song. It's been called the ransom model, and it's certainly intriguing, but I see it as only practical for artists with a die-hard following, whereas entertainment sales are so often a consequence of the impulse buy. How can an unestablished artist expect the loyalty that the ransom model requires from an immature or listless fan base?
Still, the ransom model introduces a revolutionary idea to a since-recently rigid industry. It suggests that, even on large scales, the middleman is not indispensable. Think of it. If terminally underpaid artists could sell directly to a terminally overpriced public ...
No doubt it's this line of thought that has so many young and unestablished musicians backing Napster. Not only that, Napster increases promotion and, in this day of stale radio programming and vanilla music television, is perhaps the most capable means of creating underground buzz.
Many successful artists, however, fearful of shaking up an arrangement that's proven lucrative to them, have protested Napster. Metallica's Lars Ulrich has been the most prominent of them all, dropping his drumsticks for a legal pad and taking interviews all over the television. But this is a precarious stance for Metallica because, by aligning itself against Napster, it risks aligning itself against its fans.
I, for one, have a hard time sympathizing with Metallica. For a band that has for more than 10 years profited from the exposure generated by bootlegging to come off so high-minded about the artist's control of their body of work is hypocritical.
Besides, it seems to me that the artists need not worry. They make the music, write the books, paint the pictures; theirs is an irreplaceable commodity. It's the businessmen in trouble. Napster could instigate a system of music release via the Internet that has artists selling directly to Internet sites that, like radio stations, earn revenue through advertising sales. In such a situation or if the ransom model proves successful, those in charge of the record industry, as we now know it, could be squeezed out. Admittedly, it's not very likely — businessmen have wedged themselves between the artists and the public for too long to think they won't succeed at the endeavor once again — but it's a treat to watch the suits squirm as Napster turns the industry on its head.
And, if by chance the corporate higher-ups find their stranglehold on the music industry loosened, even slightly, you won't find me broken up over it. Of the boy-band/Britney Spears craze I've had enough; popular music hasn't been so manufactured since Tin Pan Alley. And there's some amusement I find in watching industry heads mount the soapbox and trumpet ethics to teenagers they've deliberately ripped off for years.
More than anything else, though, Napster has breathed some life, some youthful rebelliousness, some rock and roll into the music scene. Steal the tunes, burn a disc, watch the court cases, get the newest music the fastest way ever; Napster makes music exciting again.
Scott Blaszak is a senior English major. His column appears every other Monday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, October 9, 2000