Industrial Music

Is Napster threatening the artists who make the music... or the people who control the business?

Sounding off on Napster: Fred Durst, Lars Ulrich, Chuck D, Bono, and Courtney Love.
Sounding off on Napster: Fred Durst, Lars Ulrich, Chuck D, Bono, and Courtney Love.

The dawning of the Digital Age, when culture and entertainment are reduced to ‘1’s and ‘O’s, has ambushed the status quo, forcing long-stable industries to re-evaluate just how they do business.

Case in point is Napster, started up by Shawn Fanning while in his first year at university (it gets its name from his teen-age moniker.) Run out of a small office in San Mateo, California, the company is made up of forty-five employees and a hundred or so computers.

And with only these resources, Napster is facilitating the exchange of millions of songs between an estimated 20 million users and has assumed its role as the hated scourge of the music industry as we know it.

For perhaps the first time ever, an internet site not only got the attention of an entire entertainment industry—it also put them on the offensive and sent them running to the U.S. Senate for help.

This past April, with all the spontaneity and subtly of the Normandy Invasion, the band Metallica made the first attack, launching a lawsuit against Napster and making it painfully clear via a press release, that they were on a holy crusade against the dark forces that sought to destroy the integrity of artists everywhere. Or, in the words of drummer Lars Ulrich:

“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.”

Ulrich, for his part, admitted that he’s never actually used Napster or used much of the net, but that wasn’t the point. The point was the band (and the entire industry) stood to lose a lot of money now that their music was available up for grabs. Metallica had busted their collective asses to produce music and they were not about to get ripped off by thirteen-year old punks who could now double-click their way to “Enter Sandman” rather than buy it.

In the lawsuit, Ulrich also directly implicated various U.S. universities for allowing their students access to Napster, charging that “facilitating [the theft of music] are the hypocritical universities and colleges who could easily block this insidious and ongoing thievery scheme. The last link in the chain are the end users of the stolen musical works, students of these universities and others who exhibit the moral fiber of common looters loading up shopping carts because ‘everybody else is doing it.’”

When independent surveys started revealing that as many as 73 percent of U.S. college students use Napster, the schools started running even more scared. Ivy League institutions tend to shy away from multi-million dollar lawsuits from heavy metal bands, evidently. Thus, Yale, Kent State, Notre Dame and many other schools quickly blocked all access to Napster shortly thereafter.

The thing about Napster is, however, that they don’t even have any of Metallica’s songs. Or anyone else’s, for that matter. The way the program works is that it allows people to share files between two computers. Could Napster really be deemed responsible for the trading of illegal music files that went completely beyond their control?

Even more important, the Napster lawyers argued, their program fell under the protection of U.S. law. After all, the US Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 clearly defended the right to copy music for personal use. And all that was happening here was that people were trading their personal copies of songs with one another... no money was changing hands.

But money was being lost. At least in the recording industry’s eyes. But to understand the complications and controversies surrounding Napster, you have to know some of the background.

Brief history lesson. In 1988, Italian engineer Leonardo Chiariglione was searching for a standardized way to convert recorded sound into a small, digital format. Along with German researchers, he figured out how to shrink pre-existing digital music information from giant-sized files into something much smaller through the use of codecs. For simplicity’s sake, he sliced most of the tones in music that the human ear can’t pick up anyway, reducing the size needed to house the information and created the .mp3 file. His intention was to apply this format to the new CD-I system that was designed to play educational games on television.

From here though, things get really interesting. The source code for this new MP3 system was stored on a computer in the University of Erlangen. From there, it was stolen by a Dutch hacker named SoloH and revamped into a source code that could convert CD music tracks into high-quality computer files. Before long, near-CD-quality .mp3 files were turning up everywhere on the net; everything from Brittney to Beethoven and Johnny Cash to the theme from Johnny Quest was now up for grabs as people recorded their CDs and tapes and transformed them into computer files for anyone’s use.

Napster popped up earlier last year. In its wake have been similar programs that have all made the creation and spreading of MP3s easy enough for anyone to take part in. This, coupled with the rising popularity of portable MP3 players that allow users to listen to the sound files via a Walkman-type device, and CD-burners that enable people to create their own CDs rather than buy them.

Musical acts ranging from Alanis to the Barenaked Ladies to Blink 182 all gave their names to a full-page ad that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal over the summer, reading “If a song means a lot to you, imagine what it means to us. That’s why we believe that when our music is available online our rights should be respected.”

But just how significantly does Napster affect album sales? If a fan can get a song for free, will they still go out and plunk down twenty bucks for the whole album?

The answer’s ‘yes,’ at least, according to an independent Canadian survey group. The Solutions Research Group has argued that “73 percent of Napster users had purchased four or more CDs in the past six months, compared with the average of 49 percent.” This is in addition to a Recording Industry of America (RIAA) report that shows that U.S. shipments of full-length CDS to stores are up six per cent to an all-time high for the first half of this year. In its first week out, N’Sync’s “No Strings Attached” — an album that falls in one of the target markets known for using Napster—still sold a staggering 2.4-million copies, more than any other album in history.

Napster also contends that it helps the recording industry by allowing users to hear artists they would otherwise never encounter. The idea works out that if you hear a song or two for free, it might coax you to go out and buy the whole thing. But Napster’s being willfully blind if they think people are downloading Hawklsey Workman or Aphex Twin more than they are Puff Daddy and Creed.

The majority of Napster users I’ve talked to still assert that they buy the same number of CDs. They claim that the MP3s they download are usually of songs from artists who only have one good song anyway. Of course, one good song or not, taking a work from an artist and not paying for it still sounds like theft.

If someone downloads a live Peter Gabriel performance or an out-of-print Rolling Stones b-side, the ethics of it all become fairly murky. Is it still ‘stealing’ when there is no other way to hear these songs? It’s not like it’s possible for someone to go down to the store and buy it, so the money ‘lost’ by the recording industry never existed in the first place. But what about all of the regularly available tracks: Just who are we all stealing from in the first place?

It may not be the artists at all.

As Charles Mann pointed out in his Atlantic Monthly article, “The Heavenly Jukebox,” in today’s music industry, Napster users aren’t the only thieves raiding the treasure chests of song.

“Although many musicians resent it when people download their music free, most of them don’t lose money from the practice, because they earn so little from copyright... performers rarely see a penny of CD royalties,” wrote Mann.

For almost every medium-sized recording act, a record company pays them just from CD royalties as a fan on Napster would. Or in other words, ‘absolutely nothing.’ In most standard label agreements, every dollar spent on the singer or band (be it promotional costs or catered dinners or the hotel accommodations for the British journalist come to interview them) comes directly out of future album sales. To even receive a royalty check, an artist on any of the major music labels would have to sell at least a million copies, estimated one music lawyer. And while a million copies for the artist means breaking even, for the label it means a net profit of about $4-million.

These are the same people that even an artist of incredible wealth and stature like Elton John refers to as “thieves [and] blatant, out-and-out crooks [who] won’t be laughing very soon, because when the music on the Internet comes in, the record companies will all be crying.”

That’s why they don’t intend to ever let it happen. The RIAA also launched a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Napster, charging them with the facilitation of music piracy. Backed up by corporate giants ranging from the National Basketball Association to the Motion Picture Association of America, the RIAA’s goals were met when, on July 26, U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel agreed to shut down Napster.

Then, at the last possible moment, two federal appellate judges granted a stay of execution of sorts, allowing Napster to remain open until their trial date in front of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on October 2. Right now Napster remains active, but its future remains hanging in limbo.

Napster’s future probably doesn’t mean all that much for the future of digital music trading, however. Whether the RIAA wins or not is irrelevant with programs like Gnutella out there that enable a direct computer-

to-computer transfer. With Gnutella (named after both the GNU Project freeware program it stemmed from and the tasty breakfast spread), there’s no company to shut down, because one doesn’t exist — it’s all strictly user-to-user.

As well, Gnutella (and similar programs like Scour) allows for the transfer of not only music, but movies. In addition to an infinite collection of hard core pornography and Thundercats cartoons, one can find movies still in theatrical release by searching through Scour users’ libraries.

X-Men popped up two days after its initial release, ready for free download. Napster’s only the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that isn’t going away and must be dealt with, not ignored or outlawed.

In the meantime, though, Napster remains banned in over a quarter of the U.S.’ post-

secondary institutions and many across Canada (Western’s one of them). What about here at Queen’s? While Information Technology Services haven’t yet banned Napster outright, they are closely monitoring and limiting the amount of information being sent from computer to computer. If you’re using ResNet or one of the public computing sites around campus, you’re able to upload and download 1000 megabytes of information over five days. The average MP3 file is usually less than five megs (although movie files are usually much, much larger), so you could conceivably still download 200 songs during one school week without having anyone complain.

Unlike at other schools, the reasons for ITS’ vigilance is stemming—at least ostensibly—to relieve the tension and congestion on the university’s network and not some sort of statement on Napster or copyright laws. It’s not as if ITS can tell which websites you’re going to or which applications you’re using — this is all monitored strictly in terms of the amount of information being sent or received. If someone (student or staff) goes over their allotted limit, a warning is issued. After that, you get your plug pulled.

It’s a necessary evil. Purchasing more bandwidth, or ‘space,’ isn’t really a strong financial possibility, so stopping people from hogging the network is the best way to handle things in the short term.

But what about the long-term problems and challenges presented by new file-sharing capabilities? Napster and programs like it are changing the landscape of music and the recording industry’s future is uncertain.

One possibility lies in the rise of music subscription sites on the net. One survey contended that 58.5 percent of those surveyed would be willing to pay $20 per month for a service like Napster. Something like this would transform the music industry into a service similar to cable television: for all intents and purposes, you’d be able to have access to all the songs or works you’d want — for a regular price. With online spending on music expected to grow to a mind-boggling $5.4-billion in the next four years, it would appear that this (and to a lesser extent, a pay-per-song download system) are the way of the future. Even the music labels themselves are buckling under and offering tracks to buy online.

David Bowie and other artists have been selling their music online directly from their websites. The Offspring are offering their entire album on the net a month before it’s due to be released, also offering a $1 million prize (offered up completely by the band with no label support whatsoever) to a random fan who downloads all of the files in addition to buying the disc when it comes out.

At the opposite end of things, novelist Stephen King has been offering chapters of his new work, “The Plant” for download on an offer system. As long as 75 percent of the people who download it contribute the $1 fee, he will continue to release parts of it. So far, his experiment is working.

In the process, these artists are slowly cutting out the middleman. In doing so, it’s possible that they’re creating the best possible future for the music (and book) industry: one where the bond between performer and audience can be re-established and artists —not the suits—can reap the benefits of their talents.

Napster Copyright Policy

“Napster is an integrated browser and communications system provided by Napster, Inc., to enable musicians and music fans to locate bands and music available in the MP3 music format. The MP3 files that you locate using Napster are not stored on Napster's servers. Napster does not, and cannot, control what content is available to you using the Napster browser. Napster users decide what content to make available to others using the Napster browser, and what content to download. Users are responsible for complying with all applicable federal and state laws applicable to such content, including copyright laws.”

— Napster Copyright Policy

What the stars have to say

“I would think the only people worried about Napster are people that are really worried about their bank accounts. The Internet is here, and anybody trying to fight that, which would be people who are living by certain standards and practices of the record industry, those are the people who are scared and threatened.”

— Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit

“It’s not about our bank accounts, it’s about the thousands and thousands of artists out there who aren’t fortunate enough to have... ”
“Radio is free! What about the radio?”
“We have the right to control our music!”
“Fuck you, Lars. It’s our music too!”

— Lars Ulrich versus a fan outside the Napster offices

“If Patel was the judge at the last turn of the century, we’d still be relying on horses and buggies to get around. Stopping the process of file-sharing is like trying to control the rain.”

— Public Enemy’s Chuck D

“I'm overpaid anyway.”

— Bono, being honest with reporters crying foul over Napster

“Why aren't record companies embracing this great opportunity? Why is the RIAA suing the companies that are stimulating this new demand? What's the point of going after people swapping cruddy-sounding MP3s? Cash! Cash they have no intention of passing onto us, the writers of their profits.”

— Courtney Love in an interview with Salon.com

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