The Napster files

A little MP3 file-sharing program outlines the shape of things to come in the music industry -- and it's not what the big labels think.

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As I write this, someone I’ve never met who goes by the handle of “er7c” is downloading a couple of Aimee Mann songs from me, using a program called Napster that’s running on both our computers. I had grabbed the MP3 song files from someone else last weekend; I wanted to check out Mann’s “Magnolia” soundtrack, which I’ve since bought on CD.

Meanwhile, I am downloading “Long Tall Weekend,” an entire MP3 album of songs by They Might Be Giants. I’ve actually copied many of the tracks from other Napster users and fallen in love with them already — how can you resist a stentorian ode to “The Edison Museum” (“the tallest, widest and most famous haunted mansion in New Jersey … the largest independently owned and operated mausoleum”)? I decided to buy the whole package from EMusic.com — it’s one of the first MP3-only album-length releases. Once it’s sitting on my hard drive, it will be available to er7c and a multitude of other Napster users.

By all the noise the music industry is making and the lawsuits it is filing, it is very afraid of people like me doing the things I’ve just described above — and especially incensed at the providers of Napster, which made it absurdly easy for me to do them. Never mind that er7c, and I, and the hordes of college students and music fans who have embraced Napster also happen to be the music industry’s best customers — the people who buy tons of CDs every year. Never mind that the more music you have a chance to hear and enjoy, the more you’re likely to buy. The music industry and its trade organizations, like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), are circling the wagons: Copying music files can be a copyright violation, and so they are turning the MP3 movement and innovators like Napster into the Enemy.

They’re right to be afraid. As Janelle Brown’s story yesterday reported, Napster’s is a classic grass-roots-up tale: Invented by college students and embraced by hordes of dedicated users before it ever made a blip on a financial analyst’s chart, it is only now being transformed into a more conventional Silicon Valley start-up business. Napster is the rare kind of software that opens a wide, clear window onto the future — and the music corporations don’t like what they see.



When Visicalc pioneered the spreadsheet in the early 1980s, you could look right through its rows, columns and cells and spy that decade’s coming explosion of corporate downsizing and takeover wars. When the ur-browser Mosaic hit the technology industry’s radar in 1994, its combination of alluring graphics and anyone-can-connect information-sharing pointed obviously and inexorably toward the vast bazaar of e-commerce and communication that we know as today’s Web. Napster, which makes it simple to find and trade MP3 music files with other fans, offers a similar vista: Look into its upload and download windows and you can see a whole new order of music distribution coalescing at supersonic speed.

Most coverage of the MP3 story has focused on the legalities: Did I have any right to download those Aimee Mann files? Did the person I copied them from have the right to share them with me? Should I be worried that I in turn might have violated the law by letting er7c copy them? But the law is lagging behind reality. If these activities are illegal, violations are so widespread that enforcement becomes almost impossible — as with the 55-mph speed limit, or the copyright laws surrounding home audio- and videotaping, or the copying and e-mailing of the full text of theoretically copyright-protected Web articles like this column.

Who is the music industry going to sue? When it gets mad at companies that provide warehouse-like servers, like MP3.com, it can sue (and has) — and if it wins, it can shut those servers down. The brilliance of Napster is that, like the Internet itself, it lacks any center: It’s just you, me and er7c, acting as individuals, sending files across the Net. The RIAA could try to shut down the central Napster directory, which lets users locate other users and their files; you can bet, though, that sooner or later someone would then come up with a more legally bulletproof version of the same service. And if the RIAA goes after the entire Napster user base, the music industry will find itself in the awkward position of suing a whole lot of its best customers. Which doesn’t sound like smart business.

Napster and the MP3 scene it is kicking into overdrive aren’t perfect, and may not be ready for mass-market prime time quite yet. Unless you have a fast Net connection, like DSL or cable modem, it still takes a while to grab a single song, and you have to know at least a little about directory structures and file formats to get the most out of the software.

None of that really matters. Napster itself may not be the final word in MP3 distribution software. Just as Visicalc lost the spreadsheet market to Lotus 1-2-3, which in turn lost out to Microsoft Excel; and just as Mosaic was superseded by Netscape, which fought a losing battle against Microsoft Internet Explorer, Napster, too, may fall by the wayside. Maybe up in Redmond they’re already hard at work on a Microsoft clone of the program — Billster!

Whatever happens to Napster, what’s inevitable is that the existing physical model of the music industry — the shrinkwrapped CD in the clumsy jewel case with the stupid plastic tabs that always break off — is going to vanish, as surely as the vinyl LP and the shellac 78s before it. And however loud the RIAA screams, the new online distribution model is never going to be as tightly controllable, or as profitable, as the old physical approach. We’ll all pay for our music one way or another, but we’ll probably pay less, and we’ll have many more opportunities to preview it and share it and adapt it to our own ends.

I don’t lose any sleep for the Warner Bros. of the world, and I fully expect that the artists of the future will still earn a living from their work — though the obscene superstar structure of the current music business may find itself undermined, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. The biggest changes are in store not for the casual listener but for the serious music fan, who already has vastly expanded opportunities for finding out about new music and new artists than in the old days, when FM radio playlists and MTV rotations were the only game in town.

Napster and MP3 are just the first wedge of much bigger changes in the distribution of music and all media. Today you can get a CD burner for a couple hundred dollars, buy blank CDs for a dollar or two and copy your MP3 files onto CDs for easy Walkman or car-stereo access. But before too much longer you may not even want to.

Storage-technology experts are confidently predicting that standard PCs will ship with terabyte-sized hard disks by 2005; a terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes, and a gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes. To grasp what this means, a typical audio CD contains about 600 megabytes of data. So your terabyte-sized drive will hold the equivalent of roughly 1,500 music CDs — and that’s with full-sized files, not using MP3 compression.

At some point, I think we will all wake up and accept that storing this stuff as discrete physical objects rather than data no longer makes any sense, except for collectors. Along with many new ways to catalog and access the music we love, we’ll all gain a lot more shelf space. Meanwhile, the waves of change that are roiling the music world today will crash into the movie and TV industries next, as bandwidth improvements make the loose electronic redistribution of video as easy as audio has become today. No wonder the media behemoths are worried.

The assumption throughout the corporate universe is that the arrival of fast broadband connections will mean a reassertion of old-fashioned broadcast-media-style centralized control over the Net. Once the pipes are fat enough to allow for high-quality video, the thinking goes, the folks who are professionals in that field — the TV networks and the movie studios — will assume their rightful roles as the providers of content to a mass audience sitting passively at the end of Internet lines.

The lesson of the Napster saga is that, once again, the powerful populist dynamics of the Internet’s many-to-many architecture may surprise the moguls. Fast broadband connections mean that AOL Time Warner can pump its content at you and me; they also mean that you and I can share content with each other. Maybe doing so won’t require an advanced engineering degree. Napster suggests it can be done pretty easily.

And now, excuse me, there are some rare They Might Be Giants tracks I want to find and download.

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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