"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
Ask singer-songwriter Aimee Mann what she thinks of Napster, the ingeniously simple and wildly popular tool for exchanging MP3 music files, and you get a very concise response: “Artists should get paid for their work.” It’s a time-honored notion, but one that seems to be getting lost amid the Napster buzz.
Ever since it appeared last August as the groundbreaking software created by a 19-year-old college student, Napster — which instantly connects users to one another’s stockpiles of mostly unauthorized MP3 files, free for the taking — has rattled the record industry. Faced with the daunting prospect of consumers simply downloading entire libraries of music for free, the label’s trade association, the Recording Industry Association of America, quickly sued Napster for trafficking in piracy.
Brushing aside thorny copyright issues, many Net users and commentators have rallied to Napster’s side in the latest round of the ongoing battle between Silicon Valley start-ups and record companies. Meanwhile, students on college campuses that have banned Napster (its volume of traffic has clogged university networks) have transformed the program, and the ability to illegally swap music, into the centerpiece of a free-speech debate.
But while the start-up lawyers and the record- company attorneys keep themselves busy billing their clients, what do the artists, the content providers, think of all this? How do they feel about Napster and the notion that so much of their music is now being swapped for free?
It’s not a question Napster and its supporters have seemed anxious to pose. In fact, the company’s normally quotable chief executive, Eileen Richardson, declined to discuss the artist’s perspective for this article.
“Nobody wants to look the artist in the eye and say, ‘Giving your music away for free is going to make you lots of money’ — not while keeping a straight face, anyway,” suggests solo artist, and founding member of the Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh.
The good news for Napster is that calls to scores of artists and their representatives suggest most still have no idea what Napster is, or how many MP3 files are being swapped every day
“My artists are busy touring, writing songs, making records,” says Cliff Bernstein, half of the team that runs Q Prime Management, which represents the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica, explaining why Napster is not yet on performers’ radar. “Most are just starting to figure it out,” adds Ron Stone, who manages Tracy Chapman and Ziggy Marley. “We send them to Napster and they see all their work being given away for free, and they’re stunned and horrified.” The fact is, many artists still think of MP3 as a promotional tool, and assume that if files are being swapped at no cost online, that’s only because artists OK’d their release.
Yet even those singers and songwriters in the know, the ones who realize that so many MP3s are available illegally, are reluctant to discuss the touchy topic. “Everybody’s freaked out about Napster,” says the publicist for a multi-platinum pop band, declining to have band members talk on the record about the new software.
But Scott Sapp, lead singer for the popular rock band Creed, says the time has come to speak out: “It has been taboo for artists to speak out concerning the business side of their music. The fear has been that the buying public, as well as other artists, would perceive this concern as greed, and that the artists’ sole purpose for creating was the money. This perception has silenced many artists concerning MP3 and Napster. The silence must end.”
And that’s where the bad news for Napster begins. Napster may have started out as a labor-of-love project, but it’s now a technology corporation — and
as the infant company attempts to grow and form profitable marketing alliances, Napster’s going to need support from the artist community, not just unsigned wannabes but full-fledged stars. The problem is, as more artists and their advocates bone up on Napster and agree to talk about it, it’s clear there’s a reservoir of resentment over what they see as the blatant theft of their work — their intellectual property — made possible by arrogant Napster programmers and their investors.
“Napster is robbing me blind,” complains Sapp. Black Crowes lead singer Chris Robinson became upset during the Silicon Alley 2000 conference when his panel discussion turned towards Napster, which he railed was ripping him off. At the same time, rapper and label founder Puffy Combs has complained that Napster “abuses” artists and that it should show more respect.
“What disturbs me the most is that artists’ rights are never discussed,” says manager Ron Stone, who notes most of the Napster press coverage has framed the debate as “an argument between Internet groups and record companies, or the RIAA. Artists just seem to be a ping-pong ball whacked back and forth and nobody gives a fuck about them.”
Indeed, a recent Page One Napster piece in the New York Times — not to mention a recent Fortune magazine feature, a Time story, a Newsweek business column and Salon’s previous coverage of the Napster phenomenon — contained no input from artists on how the revolutionary software might impact their livelihoods.
Stone hopes to air their concerns with a new Artists Against Piracy ad campaign set to run on TV, radio and the Internet: “Artists don’t want to get involved in the RIAA’s dispute with Napster. They want to take the high road and say, if you care about us, and music is of value to you, then you shouldn’t take it for free. It’s stealing from artists, and that connection needs to be made.”
“It pisses me off and I resent it,” says singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke, when asked about Napster — and she’s no technophobe. Back in December 1998, when her “Jonatha Brooke Live” album was released exclusively online, Brooke became a pioneer among established acts who turned to the Web as a way to communicate directly with her audience as well as deliver new music to it. “It’s a great way to access fans, to maintain that intimacy that you have on stage.”
But when she looks at Napster and the piracy it enables, Brooke sees only greed. “I spent $15,000 on my Web site. I paid a publicist for a year and a half out of my own pocket. And now some kid’s going to tell me my catalog should be free? They’re just entrepreneurs setting themselves up to make a ton of money off other people’s work. Where’s the compensation for the artists?”
This is from an artist who bounced around the major label system, only to leave heartbroken by career promises that never materialized. (Brooke was half of the critically acclaimed folk-pop group The Story, which recorded for Elektra; she then released solo records on labels inside the Universal Records family.) In other words, she’s the type of disillusioned performer Napster fans say should embrace the digital revolution.
No thanks, says Brooke. “I know people using Napster are chuckling about kicking big, bad record labels. But as evil as the record companies may be, at least they’re paying for your recording budget, and at least they’re promoting you, and paying for tour support.”
“Our label has been behind us from the start,” notes Morgan Rose, drummer for the hard rock band Sevendust. “They work hard for every nickel they make off us. They deserve to be paid. It’s a no-brainer.” More importantly, Rose says if fans are downloading Sevendust records instead of buying them in stores where their tallies are calculated by SoundScan, the band won’t be making records much longer. “If it’s not scanned, then the label at the end of the year says so long, and all of a sudden our careers are over, and I’m back at McDonald’s.”
Stone, who like most managers spends his time battling, cajoling and pleading with record companies on behalf of his artists, says the business is hard enough without having to worry about “blatant piracy” online. “Artists are already at war with corporate mentality at record labels. They piss on us on a daily basis. But to add Napster’s blatant music piracy to the battle is unbelievable. Three or four years ago I looked at the Internet as a viable alternative to the major label plantation system, where artists would end up owning masters at the end of your careers. But if the price you pay is to never make any money, well, that’s a sad twist. And it turns out Napster’s no better than the record companies. In fact they’re worse, because they’re offering nothing and taking everything.”
Brooke is also tired of all the theoretical talk from new media pundits — VCs, entrepreneurs, media studies professors — who promise a new, better music-industry paradigm. The theory is that all the fan activity on the Net with MP3s will only stimulate sales of traditional CDs — and even if income from CDs or paid downloads gets hurt by the new trade in free tracks online, artists can make up for it through other means, like touring and T-shirt sales, while labels might pass on some savings from lower marketing and promotion costs.
“‘We can make a new model’ — yeah, right,” says the singer. “It’s laughable. Those people have no idea how the music business works. Because unless you’re Alanis Morissette or Dave Mathews, you’re not making money on the road. It’s all I can do to break even on tour. And the only reason to tour is to promote the sale of my CD.”
But, the new technology argument goes, if so many more people are downloading artists’ songs for free, that means more fans will be exposed and attend more shows, where the money will flow to performers’ pockets. “But will they come and pay to see your show, or will they want that for free, too?” wonders Nashville singer Mandy Barnett. “It’s a vicious cycle.” And Hersh, a mother of three, wonders, “What about the artist who doesn’t want to spend 200 days a year away from home?”
Others scratch their heads when they hear that Napster’s defenders — like the
Students Against University Censorship, who protest campus restrictions on Napster use — are adopting a free-speech argument. “It’s pure fantasy,” says Frank Breeden, president of the Gospel Music Association. “The First Amendment is not a right to do whatever you want in life. You don’t have a right to come into my house and steal whatever you want.”
Not everyone in the artistic community holds such strident, anti-Napster views, though. “I believe in the technology,” says rapper Chuck D, whose Rapstation.com site may soon strike a deal with Napster. “It’s a fantastic way to build a minor league system of artists. It’s Napster on one side and major labels on the other. Pick your side.”
“The genie’s out of the bottle, now artists need to let evolution happen,” adds Alan Kovac, president of Left Bank Management, which represents the Bee Gees, Motley Cr|e and others. “I want to be on the side of innovation.” And Jim Guerinot, owner of Time Bomb Records and manager for the Offspring and No Doubt, doesn’t think RIAA lawyers should strangle Napster in the cradle.
“It’s fascinating technology that’s captured youthful consumers. I think there’s something there that’s worth talking about. If there is a way to secure the e-mails [of users], to create an online digital fan club, that could be cool.” That said, Guerinot warns that Napster’s current approach is a non-starter. “If their model is static, if the music is free and they’re only using it for an IPO, well fuck them, clearly. Their business now is not something that’s equitable or workable in the long term. It’s like the ball that gets stuck on the pinball bumper and rings up lots of points. It’s clever and exciting at first, but it doesn’t really go anywhere.”
“If Napster had our best interest in mind then they would ask our artists,” says Bernstein at Q Prime. “Nobody at Napster has ever called to ask our permission. Artists say, ‘Ask me. Explain what it is and ask if I want to participate.’ But Napster doesn’t give them at opportunity. They’re basically saying fuck the workers. Let them work their asses off and we’ll give it away for nothing.”
Napster partisans maintain that, since the software simply helps users find files on one another’s computers, Napster’s role is like that of an Internet service provider — it’s merely a conduit for the users, and any illegal behavior is the responsibility of those users. (Consumers are going to do what consumers are going to do,” shrugged one Napster VP in the New York Times.)
As for the defense Napster’s Richardson recently gave a reporter, that “Just because you are the company that makes the crowbars doesn’t mean that you’re responsible when one is used to break into a house,” some artists simply shake their heads. “‘Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.’ Sound familiar?” asks Hersh. “Someone has to take responsibility if a large group of people is being hurt due in part to your innovation. It may not be Napster’s problem, but it would be nice for Napster to acknowledge the problem and contribute to the discussion regarding the possible solutions.”
Bernstein says that Napster is “absolutely” illegal and scoffs at the company’s defense: “The bigger the lie the more you get away with, I suppose. There’s no question Napster’s going to lose in court. The only question is how much money in damages they’ll have to pay. I hope it’s enormous because then the big money investors, which Napster needs, will walk away.”
Sting’s manager, Miles Copeland, agrees: “Investors are going to realize it’s a theft business and ask, how does it make money? It doesn’t.” And if Napster does fail as a commercial enterprise, managers doubt copycats would rush in.
That may not be the end of Napster-like MP3 trading online, however: Already there’s a free, open-source Son of Napster named Gnutella, that free-software hackers could easily make widely available across the Net. Unlike Napster, Gnutella doesn’t rely on a centralized directory for connecting users — so there’s no business to invest in and no one to sue, except the music fans who might use it.
Regardless of Napster’s fate, the question that will continue to loom large is, who owns the music, and does copyright mean anything online? “Napster’s the tip of the iceberg,” says Stone. “The broader question is intellectual property on the Internet. Intellectual property should be valued and protected or we’ll all go down. And not just music either. Why would anybody sit down and write a novel if it’s going to be pirated for free the first day it’s released? If nobody values intellectual property, then we’ll all be in the insurance business.”
“No matter what
you do for a living you should get paid for your work,” says Atlantic recording artist Bif Naked, “whether you’re washing dishes or recording songs.”
That certainly runs counter to the notion being embraced online that music, copyrighted or not, should be free to whoever has the tools to take it. “It’s all very well to say music should be free, but the reality is if you don’t pay the artists, the road crew, the musicians, the recording studio, if there’s no money in music, there’s not going to be much music left,” says Copeland. “How many people would be doctors if they had to work for free? What if we said, ‘Hey, the airlines are ripping us off and we don’t want to pay for tickets, we’ll just steal them.’ Guess how long the airlines would last? If it becomes free, then it becomes extinct.”
Ask rock veteran and former Blondie leader singer Debbie Harry what she thinks of Napster and, like Aimee Mann, she gives a very simple answer: “Artists should be compensated for the work that they do.” It’s a refrain you may now be hearing more often.
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)