Broader implications of Napster
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Aug 18 09:16:46 MDT 2000
Atlantic Monthly, September 2000
The Heavenly Jukebox
Rampant music piracy may hurt musicians less than they fear. The real
threat -- to listeners and, conceivably, democracy itself -- is the music
industry's reaction to it
by Charles C. Mann
A LITTLE while ago I heard that the future of music was being decided in a
nondescript office suite above a bank in San Mateo, California. I couldn't
get there in time, so I asked a friend to check it out. A crowd was milling
in front of the entrance when he arrived. My friend parked illegally and
called me on his cell phone. There are twenty or thirty television cameras,
he said, and a lectern with a dozen microphones. Also lots of police
officers. I asked about the loud noise in the background. "That," he
explained, "is people smashing compact discs with sledgehammers."
The compact discs contained music by the rock band Metallica. Three weeks
earlier Metallica had sued a now-notorious Internet start-up called
Napster, which is based on the fourth floor of the bank building. (The name
comes from the founder's moniker in adolescence.) Far from being the
colossus that its media prominence might lead one to expect, Napster is a
surprisingly small outfit: it consists mainly of a Web site, about
thirty-five hip, slightly disheveled employees, and a hundred or so of the
powerful computers known as servers. By connecting to these computers with
special software, Napster members can search one another's hard drives for
music files, downloading gratis any songs they discover.
As the furor over Napster suggests, the opportunity to share music quickly
and without charge has been greeted with more enthusiasm by listeners than
by the music industry. Although the company's music-swapping software has
only just been officially released, the service already has about 20
million regular users, and the tally is rising every day. Countless other
people use Napster's brethren; the company is but the most prominent of
many free-music services on the Internet. The result, in Metallica's
opinion, is an outrageous pirate's bacchanalia -- millions of pieces of
music shuttling around the Net uncontrolled. The group filed suit,
according to its drummer, Lars Ulrich, "to put Napster out of business."
I asked my friend to visit Napster's headquarters that day because I knew
that Ulrich, Metallica's lawyer, and several burly guys in T-shirts were
driving to San Mateo in a black sport-utility vehicle. In the SUV were
thirteen boxes full of printouts listing the user names of 335,435
Napsterites who, the band said, had traded Metallica songs during the
previous weekend. Ulrich and his entourage planned to dump the boxes in the
company's tiny, cluttered foyer. The people with the sledgehammers planned
to shout unflattering remarks while this was taking place. Suddenly a
compact man with high-tide hair and shades came to the podium: Lars Ulrich.
My friend held up his phone a few feet from the drummer's face, but I could
barely hear Ulrich. The catcalls were too loud.
"You suck, Lars! You sellout!"
"This is not about pounding the fans, this is about Napster ..."
"Then why are you busting them? Have you ever even used Napster, Lars?"
Hooting laughter almost drowned out Ulrich's response. In an online chat
with fans the previous day, Ulrich had admitted that he had never actually
tried Napster. Indeed, he said later, his experience with the Internet was
limited to using America Online "a couple of times to check some hockey
scores." Nonetheless, his suspicions, however unfounded on experience, were
entirely warranted as a matter of fact.
Within the music industry it is widely believed that much of the physical
infrastructure of music -- compact discs, automobile cassette-tape players,
shopping-mall megastores -- is rapidly being replaced by the Internet and a
new generation of devices with no moving parts. By 2003, according to the
Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Investment Research Group, listeners will rarely
if ever drive to Tower Records for their music. Instead they will tap into
a vast cloud of music on the Net. This heavenly jukebox, as it is sometimes
called, will hold the contents of every record store in the world, all of
it instantly accessible from any desktop. And that will be just the
beginning. Edgar Bronfman Jr., the head of Universal, the world's biggest
music company, predicted in a speech in May that soon "a few clicks of your
mouse will make it possible for you to summon every book ever written in
any language, every movie ever made, every television show ever produced,
and every piece of music ever recorded." In this vast intellectual commons
nothing will ever again be out of print or impossible to find; every scrap
of human culture transcribed, no matter how obscure or commercially
unsuccessful, will be available to all.
Bronfman detests Napster. His speech likened the company to both slavery
and Soviet communism. But its servers constitute the nearest extant
approximation of his vision of a boundless sea of digital culture. While
Ulrich spoke, I logged on to Napster. More than 100,000 people were on the
company's machines, frolicking about in terabytes of music. "True fans of
the talent are the ones who respect our rights," the drummer was saying. I
typed in search terms: Mahler, Mingus, Method Man, Metallica ... all were
free for the taking. And all were freely being taken -- users couldn't put
a nickel in the machine even if they wanted to. Little wonder that the
thought of such systems spreading to films, videos, books, and magazines
has riveted the attention of artists, writers, and producers.
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