Napster -- friend or foe?

Fans have already embraced new music-distribution technologies. Musicians can fight them or join them.

Published March 30, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The refrain snaking through Salon's recent article on why a lot of professional musicians hate Napster -- the software that lets users easily swap MP3 music files -- is familiar and catchy: One artist after another steps forward to state, with a hint of indignation in their voices, that "artists should get paid for their work."

That may seem to most of us today like common sense, a law of nature, but in fact it is a concept of relatively recent historical vintage. In popular music, the notion of a class of professional songwriters and musicians who might support themselves -- and just maybe get rich -- through their music is not much more than a century old.

New technologies -- first sheet music, then radio and the phonograph -- made pop-music professionalism possible. So suggesting that other new technologies might change the landscape again isn't, as the indignant artists would have it, a violation of their rights or a fundamental upending of the moral order; it is merely observation of a historical process at work.

Historical process is, to be sure, impersonal and uncaring, and inevitability alone doesn't render structural changes in the music business that might cut into a superstar's profit, or force the members of a marginal band to take day jobs, any less painful. When steam power drove the hand-loom weavers of pre-Victorian Britain out of business, they took to smashing machines under the banner of mythical "General Ludd"; today's recording artists, fearful of being similarly economically displaced, have taken their Luddism into the legal system, and are attempting to smash the new music machines with lawsuits.

Rather than insist that the way the music world does business today is the only way imaginable, it behooves artists to take a longer and more imaginative view. It's not as if the status quo has served them so well. Today a popular recording artist is basically a participant in a lottery, rigged by the music conglomerates, with a tiny likelihood of winning a vast fortune and overwhelmingly more likely odds of achieving only obscurity and peanuts in royalties.

Even more than the artists, the victims of this system are music fans -- who end up paying exorbitant prices for CDs to fund bloated recording-company marketing budgets. That money gets spent manufacturing a handful of superstars, leaving serious music lovers to fend for themselves in ferreting out unusual new music that the business considers too "niche-y" to be worth promoting.

This is the landscape onto which the MP3 movement and Napster have arrived -- one filled with howls of outrage from fans. Write about this subject on the Net, as I did a couple of months ago, and your e-mail will overflow with their complaints about the way things have been, and relief at the changes the new technologies portend:

  • "Why should I have to pay $17 for one good song while the rest suck? Maybe it's time that the public decides what's good instead of being force-fed by the big boys."

  • "I'm sick of hearing these crybaby millionaires moaning about fans ripping them off. Fans deserve it, they paid their dues. And this is ultimately about fans, isn't it? Without us, those greedy musicians don't have a dime."

  • "Technological innovations give people the power to filter through the crap that the recording industry has been packaging as music in the need to satisfy contracts or to ride or create the latest hot trend."

  • "People have found a way to share music and lower the expense. Let the system adjust or die. The revolution is here and I dare you to try and take it away."

Sure, the rhetoric's overheated, but remember -- these are music lovers who should be the industry's most lucrative customers, not its sloganeering adversaries. Does this sound like, in entertainment-industry parlance, a "well-served market"?

One way of looking at the music industry wars today is to see a battle between entertainment corporations, whose revenue depends on keeping intellectual property secure and costly, and new technologies that tend to unlock intellectual property and drive its price down. Note that in this picture, both artists and fans aren't the primary combatants: They are, in truth, free to choose sides.

The hordes of music listeners who have begun to violate the copyright laws en masse with Napster have made their choice. Musicians seem more divided, with the majority -- perhaps still hoping to win the superstar lottery, or unwilling to rethink the economics of their chosen career -- still leaning toward the music companies' position, and a few renegades trying to experiment with new approaches.

Here's a map of different ways this struggle could end:

1) Napster goes away, business as usual resumes: The RIAA wins in court, the Napster servers that hook users up with one another get shut down and the record companies' schemes for copy-protected digital music distribution become the marketplace standard.

2) Napster prevails, business as usual resumes: The industry's doomsayers prove to be wrong, and -- just as happened with the movie industry's fears that VHS taping would destroy its bottom line -- the proliferation of online MP3 swapping only expands the overall music market, as people find more music to love and spend more money on it.

3) Napster prevails, the music-industry-as-we-know-it collapses, and that turns out to be a bad thing: The talent pool of music makers dries up, as the superstars of yesterday end up begging on street corners and those of tomorrow shun music for careers as stockbrokers and software developers.

4) Napster prevails, the music-industry-as-we-know-it collapses, and that turns out to be a good thing: Record-company executive suites depopulate as artists cut out the middleman and forge direct relationships with fans. Superstars dwindle, the Grammys perish and music consumers choose from a richer, broader range of interesting, creative musical alternatives, while a flourishing ecosystem of commercial and fan-based Web sites and online services helps people find the music they like.

Here's why I think scenario 1 is highly unlikely: The millions of MP3 users aren't going to stop using their chosen format just because the music industry tries to shove another one down their throats. The fate of schemes like Divx suggests how difficult it is for the entertainment business to force consumers to adopt an unpopular standard. And regardless of what happens to Napster in court, the Napster concept can't be unthought.

Already there are other Napster-like services (readers wrote in to tell me about CuteMX and the Mac-oriented Macster). And the debut of Gnutella -- an open-source-style Napster-like exchange program that's fully distributed, so there's no central server to sue or shut down -- suggests just how impossible it will be to put out this populist fire.

About the only scenario I can imagine that could truly wreck Napster and Napster-like online swap meets is the prospect of massive pollution of the data pool itself -- devious, but certainly possible. It's the nature of Napster-type networks to keep duplicating the same files, and you can't "preview" the files, so if opponents of Napster manage to infect the online song libraries with mislabeled files (I wanted to download the Clash and instead I got Barry Manilow!) or bad versions of songs, filled with noise or skips, users might get exasperated.

My money is on scenario 2 in the short term and 4 for the long haul. At first, the spread of Napster and its clones will stimulate demand for all sorts of "midlist" music that the record industry itself has done a lousy job of promoting, and the music companies will cry over Napster's success all the way to the bank.

Over time, though, I think that a growing number of artists will question their own participation in a system that really doesn't serve the great majority of them. They'll begin to experiment with more direct musician-to-fan schemes -- not simply the sell-more-T-shirts approach mocked by artists in our article last week, but serious new ideas for generating revenue for musicians: ideas like annual fan subscriptions, charges for early access to new music or special deals on collector's items, using online networking to boost attendance at shows and no doubt many others that I can't yet imagine.

The one piece yet to fall into place for utopian scenario 4 to come true is an easy-to-use micropayments scheme -- some nearly universal online system for musicians (and anyone else) to be able to collect very small sums from customers without incurring prohibitive overhead costs. Once such technology becomes available, you can kiss the existing order of the industry goodbye.

In this kind of future, won't the total dollar value of the music industry decline? Quite possibly. But whom is that a tragedy for, exactly? Executives of and investors in music companies, perhaps. Artists? Fewer will make a killing, but more, quite likely, will make a living.

Such a technology-driven transformation of the business landscape -- scary though it may sound to those prospering today -- could well mean more choice for consumers and a healthier environment for the creators of music. Even if you're not a music fan, you probably want to pay attention here, because the same forces upsetting the music world will sooner or later start transforming everything else.

And for those of you out there getting ready to e-mail me and say, "So you're a writer -- how would you feel if it was your industry and livelihood at risk?" all I can say is, that's no "if." It's already happening here in the "information industry," where newspapers are under fire, Web sites (including this one) have learned to give away their goods for free and notions of professionalism are under fire from un- or ill-paid amateurs using the Net to distribute their own kind of reporting.

I don't know for sure how journalism will fare any better than I can predict with certainty what will happen to music. There's one thing I'm quite sure of: It's stupid to pretend that new technologies and distribution schemes won't change these fields -- and wanting to turn back the clock, however tempting, is not only immature but futile.

By Scott Rosenberg

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

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