Will MP3 kill the video star?
Confessions of a music junkie, or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the Napster.
It wasn’t so long ago that I used to tape songs off the radio, from friends and even from TV. I was part of the underground conspiracy of song sharing and the music industry believed that my actions were taking money out of the hands of retailers, record companies and artists. As a wave of warning labels began to proclaim that "Home taping kills music," I wondered if I really was the problem or if my defiance was actually feeding the flames of a developing passion for music.
A couple of decades later, the paranoia of the music industry has returned. The technological advancement spurring this panic is a simple computer application called Napster, which allows users to share, copy and reproduce sound files freely on the Internet. Napster and its community of users are the latest threat to the music industry status quo-a status quo challenged in the past by printed music, phonographs, radio broadcasting, cassettes, DAT and mini-discs. What’s different this time is that the threat blurs the lines of traditional promotion and distribution by facilitating copyright infringement.
Even though the media, the labels and some artists themselves-Metallica, for instance-cry that Napster signals the beginning of the end for music as we know it, Napster, and applications like it, may be the very thing that can save and streamline the music industry by educating listeners and empowering artists. Industry fears aside, Napster is just another way for fans to hear music. Perhaps what scares and angers record labels the most is that they didn’t think of it first.
My early passion for pop singles quickly evolved into buying full-length recordings in the ’80s, either on cassette or vinyl. Vinyl had warm analogue sound and rich artistic covers while cassettes-and cassette players-were portable. Both formats were successful even though their quality degraded with each use, which I hoped had more to do with the limitations of materials than with planned obsolescence. Even though I could hear popular songs around me for free on the radio, in videos or standing in line at the store, I didn’t let that devalue the work of artists I wanted to hear by refusing to buy music. Once I did take the plunge and purchase an album, there was no turning back. It was the closest thing to gambling and drugs a kid could legally partake in. Good music was pure ecstasy but since there was no guarantee all the tracks would be great-I couldn’t return an album the way I could a sucky stereo or Walkman-sometimes I’d be left with a bad taste in my mouth and a worse record in my collection.
The music industry thought it had trumped home taping through the introduction of the compact disc. The new format was marketed as a convenient way to listen to high-quality music in a futuristic shiny package, and it appeared the industry had found a way to foil pirates, since digital technology was expensive and out of reach to the general public. CDs were a way to keep a tight reign on the means of production and at the same time create a demand-music-lovers rushed to re-purchase their old favourites in the new format. I did so with a big fat smile because I was in no position to challenge the price of CDs-I didn’t know then that it costs less to press one disc than to manufacture a single cassette tape.
And that’s the paradox at the heart of the current debate. Music is at once abstract and concrete-abstract in that it is one of the more ethereal, intangible art forms. You can’t possess a song the way you can a painting. You can only possess a recording of a song. Music’s abstract nature means it will endure any socio-economic turbulence. Its concrete nature-the physical reproductions of songs from which the music industry makes the bulk of its money-is the foundation of the risky business model for record companies that must find new ways to make up for lost returns and unsuccessful artists. The system needs to maximize control of artists’ work in order to succeed. In fact, more music is being lost to corporate mergers than could ever be endangered by something like Napster. When one label is engulfed by another label, projects in production and albums in the can enter a release limbo that hinges on the new company’s desire to distribute and promote both the recording and the actual artist. Such mergers have cut loose artists like Ron Sexsmith, who found himself without a home when Universal took over Interscope Records, and left work by bands like Whiskeytown mouldering on the shelf two years after it was recorded.
But the music industry isn’t the only source of technological innovation, and therein lies its problem. Several years ago, a German institute patented the MP3 (Moving Picture Experts Group-Audio Layer 3) format, a process of compressing high-quality audio files down to about one-tenth the regular size with only a slight loss in sound quality. That’s nerd talk for making an electronic audio file small enough to be portable on the Internet but still sound good. You can store these files on your computer’s hard drive, a recordable CD, your MP3-playing Walkman or wherever else you store digital information.
MP3 compression allowed software developers to create programs that could encode, decode and play music on their computers-for free. User-friendliness combined with the increasing accessibility of CD burners and the growth of the Internet were all the ingredients necessary to spark one heck of a market trend.
That’s not all that was sparked, though. MP3 technology has simplified the music-sharing process while complicating the music industry and bringing its attendant copyright concerns to the fore. The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada has already implemented a tariff structure for the public broadcast of copyright-protected work. SOCAN also plans to charge Internet Service Providers in order to recover lost royalties through Internet music broadcasting, the same way it charges radio stations. The Canadian Private Copying Collective has placed a levy on every recordable CD sold in Canada, regardless of its intended use, just the way blank audio cassettes were levied. This time, though, graphic artists, writers, network administrators, software pirates and even struggling musicians are supporting the music industry each time they buy blank CDs. So every time my computer crashes during a burn and I end up making a metallic coaster, I am directly supporting the Canadian music industry.
Love it or hate it, file sharing is an inherent byproduct of networked computers and e-mail, instant messaging, Web sites and so on. They all operate by downloading and uploading text, images and other multimedia features that can cause the same copyright injury and insult to intellectual property Napster is accused of perpetrating.
This is just like tape trading but on a much grander and more efficient scale. MP3 trading was able to flourish on an open system of digital audio in much the same way music played at private parties and songs sung at campfires have spread the words and melodies of artists without direct compensation. The industry can’t control how people use, interpret, mimic or remember recorded music and oral traditions unless it adopts a closed, encrypted system.
The Internet has been heralded as the death of everything from common decency to books-in fact, it has already proven itself a tool for disseminating etiquette tips and selling and promoting books. The increasing popularity of the Internet in the mid-’90s gave me access to out-of-print 7-inch records through auctions, bootleg CD and mix-tape trades through newsgroups, and the ability to log into an on-line record store with a credit card number in hand. Import CDs that would take months to arrive when I ordered them from the local bricks-and-mortar record store were now delivered to my door in record time.
These new options augmented my regular shopping habits, rather than replacing them. I became a more fine-tuned music consumer, provided I kept my Internet connection and computer upgraded. I was willing to open the flood gates to a tremendous opportunity for cost-effective, one-to-one marketing techniques that would have been impractical in the old system of focus groups, mail surveys and fickle radio exposure. Music fans like myself could quickly and easily discover new styles and brands of music from all around the world and keep in closer contact with other fans, artists, record companies and media outlets. Just as Canada Post held its breath in the face of large scale e-mail usage, but didn’t anticipate the demand on shipping that came along with e-commerce, so the music industry bemoans the advent of music-sharing applications but neglects to see the possibility for expansion it brings with it.
In the constant tug of war over taste, ownership and profit margins, Napster upsets the balance and lets the fan-who doesn’t have a large lobby or industry watch-dog looking over their shoulder-sample, listen and then decide where and when they will plunk their money down. Napster is just the killer application of the moment for peer-to-peer MP3 sharing. There are many more shit-disturbers like Shawn Fanning (Napster’s founder) pulling all-nighters in their college dorms thinking of ways around the new legal and technical roadblocks in their path (see Aimster, Audiogalaxy, BearShare, Gnutella, iMesh, LimeWire or Napigator for starters) because fans want to find ways to exchange music with each other. The industry will be forced to keep reacting if it doesn’t soon become a proactive force in linking fans and artists using the most convenient ways.
Sure, Napster is fueled by the music fan’s desire for free, accessible music, but it is actually derivative of an even loftier idea. Hotline Connect is a no-holds-barred file trading program created in 1996 as a way to tap into the unrealized potential of real-time interactive communication in a limitless manner-users could trade anything from essays on copyright infringement to kiddie porn. Creating the world’s largest, most comprehensive music library by linking together music traders is just a drop in the bucket compared to the completely open exchange of ideas on Hotline. Though it’s mostly illegal under current copyright laws, Napster actually looks like the Mayor of Simpletown compared to Hotline’s anarchistic Master of Puppets.
Another difference is that Napster is quickly becoming a model for the music industry to cash in on the downloading fever. As soon as Napster begins asking for a fee from users, it could either cause its users to flee to the competition or help the system evolve into a profitable business that can compensate artists, plus link with retailers, record companies and artists in ways people have never imagined.
So it’s no surprise that Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG, which is one of the five major record labels and also a financial backer of retailer CDNow.com) chose to partner with Napster to develop a subscription-based service by summer. This system, which takes its cue from grassroots models in the computer industry like shareware and the open source movement, does not mix well with traditional notions of music promotion and copyright control. If the rest of the industry were to hold off on prosecuting Napster and persecuting downloading fans, it could expand its perspective-that is, it would, in the grand tradition of the unwieldy behemoth that is the music industry, be able to co-opt a few fresh ideas. These it could add to its stable of promotional and business tools, among them sponsorship, licensing to advertisers and long-term exclusive contracting of artists.
But the remaining major record labels will probably not embrace Napster, because it levels the playing field and forces them to rub shoulders with the independents. There is no advantage for a large corporation to support a system that makes Ricky Martin as accessible as Mike O’Neill-especially when the large corporation can start its own system under its own rules and terms (Universal and Sony Music have plans to launch "Duet" this year and no doubt Warner Music, or AOL Time Warner, has something up its sleeve). Napster’s success has been driven by its users and the tremendous amount of press, mostly negative, it has endured over the last year-that kind of exposure is difficult to record over, even with the help of the court. The law alone cannot reverse the paradigm shift registered Napster users and countless music fans have experienced since they started using the ‘Net to listen to, research and buy music.
Napster will not kill the music industry any more than home taping did. At best, it can only alter it, because the music industry will not roll over and play dead. The traditional solution would be a format change that will render your current CD player as useless as an 8-track. In fact, BMG, EMI and Universal have recently announced plans to support a digital storage format called Dataplay (www.dataplay.com), and its success will depend on how sexy it can be made in the short-sighted eyes of the consumer.
Information has to be free-or at least dirt cheap-to reach the greatest number of people possible. And just because something is free doesn’t mean people are going to find it, use it, abuse it or even like it. It has to be free in order to make the initial connection an enjoyable one, and if that feeling is nurtured it becomes easier to find ways to exchange money for a product or a service based on the original familiarity, trust and ultimately added values. Thanks to the Internet, music is the information that now wants to be free. Every time a music fan logs on, an artist or label has a chance to develop a fan base and encourage people to buy music, videos, DVDs and fashion. Downloaders should not be viewed as freeloaders but rather as potential customers with valuable demographic information and disposable income to spend.
The artists who embrace the flexibility of information technology can still shoot to the top of the charts by encouraging their fans to tape shows or by injecting a first single into the Napster system, like the Dave Matthews Band did. If you’re an artist and millions of people are downloading your songs, that’s a good problem to have. Those downloaders turn into record-buyers, concert-goers, song-requesters and video-watchers. If you are an artist and you think you can sell lots of records without people hearing your music, you better have one hell of a good gimmick or look great in a thong.
With the Internet, competition should be getting stronger, but the SoundScan charts still reflect a homogeneous list of hit-makers from city to city. The death of the CD-single is much talked about in music circles these days, but the success of singles-compilation albums like Big Shiny Tunes, Oh What A Feeling and 2001 Grammy Pop Nominees indicates the single is still very much alive. It may be impossible to challenge the major labels’ marketing networks and media connections that dictate buying patterns and influence radio programming across the planet, but at least we can say we had some fun while the dream lasted. Welcome to the grey new world of killing the music industry.
From The Coast, March 15 – 22, 2001, Volume 8 Number 39 (#290)