Perfect Sound Forever

Down With Downloading

by Janet Branagan (March 2002)

It's amazing how fast a few years can fly by. I've only been alive a little over two decades and already I have seen many a trend come and go. Nothing intrigues me as much as the evolution of music and media. Things like where certain genres came from, how they evolved, and perhaps most importantly- where they will go to next. While young enough to feel part of the electronic boom, I also feel old enough to reflect upon the timeline that got us here.

In the late 70s I recall listening to music like the Bee Gees on my parent's old 8-Track recorder. I never let go of good old fashioned records as I segued into purchasing cassette tapes. Tapes were better for all the obvious reasons- they were smaller, easier to carry and of course, "the wave of the future." Before long CD's came along, packaged in long and cumbersome cardboard boxes that were horrors to the environment, much less the consumer. From the start I wasn't buying into the compact disc game, literally or figuratively. I didn't see the point in spending more money for the same thing. I liked my tapes just fine, thank you very much.

Two Turntables And A Microphone

 As the '90's came around, so did I to the idea of CD's. For one thing, CD prices were going down making them quite comparable to tapes. For another, those pesky boxes were becoming a distant memory as they opted for smaller, more user friendly packaging. Finally, it was where music was headed. More stereos were coming with multiple CD changers, and cars were switching over from dusty old cassette players. It became a case of if you can't beat 'em join 'em and so, once again, I did.

 Before long "the times they were a changing," and at the edge of a new millennium we were again on the verge of ushering in a new portable sound. This new music craze upped the ante a bit by going beyond walkmans and stereos and instead the "toy" of choice was a computer. If you didn't have one you needed one, pronto. A computer, while originally a dull glorified word processor, took off like a rocket with the advent of the Internet. Suddenly everything was, "email me this" or "dot com me that." From the time I entered college to the time I graduated, the world of technology had entered yet another change of life. This time I was right in the middle of it all.

Napster Mania

 It's hard to talk about the latest musical revolution without talking about the controversy that has surrounded it. Initially computers and the music industry were a happy marriage with very little interference from the in-laws. Computers came enabled with CD drives, which allowed music to play from the very same machine you were writing your latest masterpiece on. Even record companies got in on the act, conjuring up the idea of "enhanced CD's," which can offer a plethora of bonus material including hidden tracks, video footage and artist Q&A. All of this hoopla was implemented to make listeners feel "special" in relation to the music they were purchasing.

 But as time progressed, so did technology, and record and software companies alike were beginning to think they had created an illegitimate child. The rumblings began when the Internet boom took off, ultimately introducing music lovers to new avenues. What made them sit up and take notice the most, however, was the birth of the now infamous swapping nation known to all as Napster.

 Founded only two and a half years ago, Napster is the brain child of college dropout Shawn Fanning. Now 20, Fanning came up with Napster's initial concept while studying computer programming at Northeastern University. What started as a part-time hobby to couple his love for music with his love for code, became the song-swapping program Napster, named after a nickname Fanning earned while in high school.

 Napster's premise was simple and went back to what we all learned in kindergarten- always remember to share. It worked like this--let's say you had twenty songs and wanted twenty more. You'd log on to Napster and search for others who were logged in with songs to share. Someone else would in turn download from you and so on and so forth. A collection that started off with twenty tunes could easily multiply to two hundred, if your timing was right. The particular appeal and success of such a program relied heavily on one big factor- it was FREE. Yes, that's right. In a world full of everything having its price, Napster was a welcome change to the often economically challenged college student who just had to have the latest Beck.

There were a few other hurdles to overcome when dealing with the new system but for the most part, they paled in comparison to what die-hard music fans would come out with in the end. Learning how to use the actual interface was super easy, translating those files to MP3 format, was in comparison, a little bit harder. Once you learned how to master the transfer, however, it was smooth sailing from there. Before long, kids were hip to the downloading game and CD burners were at the top of everyone's Christmas wish lists.

Indian Givers

 But nothing good lasts forever and Napster was no exception. As Napster users increased, so did the media's interest. Record companies became concerned and came down hard on Napster, contending the program violated copyright laws and ultimately took away from hard-working musicians total earnings. Colleges began to complain that the downloading was causing stress to their servers. Parents were complaining that they never saw their teenagers anymore. Ok, so maybe the last one has ALWAYS been an issue. Still, it became obvious that not unlike Poison's career in the early '90's, Napster's days were numbered.

 When word first got out that the future of Napster was in jeopardy people panicked. Napster users were at an all-time high, everyone swapping everything they could before the big freeze. Fanning stuck by his guns, claiming Napster's mission was really not all that different then going over to a friend's house and borrowing a few CD's. The record companies however, weren't buying it. Most fans of the system didn't really care about the how's and the why's. Napster worked for them and they wanted it- period. It didn't matter how much money you were taking away from corporate America or ridiculously rich musicians. In fact, for many, this was part of the appeal.

 But what about the musicians who weren't in the economic ranks of say a Billy Joel or Elton John? What about bands like Taxiride or singers like Danielle Brisebois? What--have you never heard of them? Well, that's the point. A program like Napster suddenly became this double edged sword. On one hand you had a chance to have the whole world get to know your music while on the other, you had less and less of a chance of making real profit off of it.

 As it turns out, musicians were as divided as fans and record executives. Artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre let out resounding 'NO's' when it came time to have their say on the swapping brigade. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich was quoted as saying, "With each project, we go through a grueling creative process to achieve music that we feel is representative of Metallica at that very moment in our lives... We take our craft -- whether it be the music, the lyrics, or the photos and artwork -- very seriously, as do most artists. It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is. From a business standpoint, this is about piracy -- a/k/a taking something that doesn't belong to you; and that is morally and legally wrong. The trading of such information -- whether it's music, videos, photos, or whatever - is, in effect, trafficking in stolen goods."

 But other reputable acts, greatly disagreed. Billy Joe of Green Day was quoted as saying, "I just want my music to be out, and that's always been the main priority. It was never really about getting paid. It was just getting people to hear my music and say, 'Hey, I like your song.' So if Napster wants to put my song out so people can download it or whatever, let 'em do it." Moby echoed similar sentiments, "Most people I know who listen to a lot of MP3's will download a lot of different songs. And if they like the song, they'll go out and buy the album. The record company doesn't want me to say this, but out of the millions of MP3 files that are out there, if someone chooses to download one of my songs or an album of mine, I'm very flattered."

Even big shot artists showed their support. Madonna was quoted as saying that "Napster could be a great way for people to hear your music who wouldn't have the chance to hear it on the radio." Prince stated "What record companies don't really understand is that Napster is just one illustration of the growing frustration over how much the record companies control what music people get 2 hear over the air waves, record labels and record stores, which r now all part of this 'system' that recording companies have pretty much succeeded in establishing, r becoming increasingly dominated by musical "products" 2 the detriment of real music. Y should the record company have such control over how he, the music lover, wants 2 xperience the music?... From the point of view of the real music lover, what's currently going on can only b viewed as an xciting new development in the history of music. And, 4tunately 4 him, there does not seem 2 b anything the old record companies can do about preventing this evolution from happening."

 The Dave Matthews Band even did the unthinkable- supporting, in fact, encouraging the Napster environment, even releasing their first single "I Did It" off of their latest album to Napster audiences exclusively. Matthews believes, "There are a lot of bigger problems in the world than whether Napster succeeds or fails... I don't think there is a malice coming out of Napster. We allowed people to tape our concerts from the beginning, and the record company questioned us about allowing that. But my thinking was that it only makes people want to buy more and increases the devotion of people who are going to listen to us."

For Matthews, it was all about being in the music business to create music. Metallica, however, had a harder time leaving the word business out of the equation.

With The Click Of A Mouse

 Some time has passed and the Napster debate has quieted down considerably. After the demise of Napster many copycat creations began to crop up, some better than others. Napster, while in a holding pattern, still insists it will be back better than ever. The launch date, however, has increasingly been put off. The main agreement that Napster and the industry could agree upon proposes that Napster would become a subscription based service, the details of which, including the actual fees, are still a mystery. Initially many fans of Napster's format agreed that was a healthy alternative and admitted they would sign up should the time come. But as more time passes, the advantages of sticking with Napster seem to slip further and further away.

 The main reason Napster rose is the same reason it might not rise again- it's no longer free. While fans initially agreed to pay a small fee, much time has passed and many have begun to go elsewhere to get their music. Just like a long absence from the music industry can hinder any star's comeback, a long absence from the business of swapping can have similar repercussions. If you don't believe me, just ask Lionel Richie.

 It's hard to say exactly where all the users who were die-hard Napster supporters have gone. There are many free alternatives out there, however, and no doubt the users are scattered amongst them. If anything, the reason you might not know about the next big thing is because this time around the supporters have grown wiser, keeping such information to themselves and only a few close friends, in the hopes that their Napster replacement won't be taken away from them as well.

But don't think record companies are getting ready to roll over and die anytime soon. Some major labels have begun launching file-swapping sites of their own such as AOL Time Warner, Real Networks, Bertelsmann AG, and EMI Group's Music Net, currently offered on a subscription basis for $9.95 a month. Sony and Universal introduced Press Play, available to hungry downloaders for one of four package rates, depending on your musical appetite. Neither system, however, offers the kind of freedom and overall availability that programs like Napster did, and (in some cases) still does. On a global level, the United Nations have taken steps against piracy as well, authoring a treaty that will protect authors on the Internet come March of 2002.

Universal, one of the major labels initially leading the fight against Napster, has also since bought the source of their contempt, entering into unchartered waters, both professionally and musically. The first phase of this new partnership introduces many glitches that prevent the average music listener from "damning the man" any longer.

One of the first things on the agenda involves copy protecting CD's, to ultimately prevent music lovers from compromising new releases in the future. Still in its infancy, this process would prevent consumers from burning, ripping or copying songs on to their computer hard drives. Yet, already diehard fans have begun to fight back, citing copy-protected CD's as placing unfair restrictions on what can be done with music that was essentially, legally bought (not to mention that they're rendered unplayable on some systems).

 On a personal note, I too got caught up in the appeal of all Napster had to offer. Born a music lover, downloading was exciting and inviting at the same time. For me, the pros greatly outweighed the cons. Suddenly, hard-to-find albums that I spent hours scouring used record stores for or hard to peg song titles were at my fingertips. The question for me didn't become how can I download all of this, instead it became, how can I not?

 Now that I am one of the aimless ex-users of Napster I too have moved on. To greener pastures? Maybe not. But where to, I'll never tell. If there's one thing I've learned when watching music evolve is that you can't contain it. Sure, record executives can hold this latest revolution at arm's length for the time being, but music is now a living, breathing thing. Musicians are going to continue to create it and people like me are going to continue to seek it out. From when Elvis first swiveled his hips to when the Beatles first took America by storm on Ed Sullivan, the biggest musical evolutions have often taken place with a bang, not a whimper- not unlike the music itself.

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