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Napster and MP3s, Digital Crack, September 24th, 2000 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: September 24th, 2000
"Napster and MP3s, Digital Crack" [permalink]
    keywords: napster, mp3, p2p, filesharing, riaa
    soapbox #: 260
    written: September 24th, 2000
    words: 1890

"Napster and MP3s, Digital Crack", an Essay

Well, after casually downloading a few of the first MP3s on our dialup connection in college four years ago, and then the spate of e-mails and ICQ messages demanding that I try Napster because it'll be the next killer app, the MP3 issue has finally become commonly known to everyone and is hitting the courts. It has come to fruition, it has lived up to the expectations of those who immediately saw the effects MP3 would have on the music industry. All that's left, really, is the end result: how MP3 will die, what will replace it, and what happens next to the record labels.

Actually, MP3 might not die. It's a very simple and robust file format. Certainly extra features could be added to it, but in terms of sound quality, it can be encoded at varying qualities and will be proportionately smaller-sized with larger hard drives and faster Internet connections showing up every day. I doubt file size can be compressed much more than it already is (the file size is virtually negligent nowadays for above reasons) and MP3 can't be duped with all sorts of stupid corporate branding or advertising schemes since programs like WinAmp and Sonique are ubiquitous.

But needless to say, something will probably come along to take up where MP3 left off, whether it's with more sophisticated catalogue info, more options per track, whatever.

Where the real growth has yet to come is in the devices to play MP3s. While the RIAA badmouths Napster and has a distaste for MP3 that it denies publically, companies like Sony and Philips keep producing portable MP3 devices and advertising CD recorders with copyrighted songs in their commercials. I am still of the belief that the RIAA and the companies who have a vested interest in protecting their music monopolies see that MP3 is impossible to get rid of, and are stalling right now until they can catch up. I cannot see how they would try to spend all this money on something they know they could never stop. Artists like Dr. Dre and Metallica seem to be fairly unintelligent on the topic and I'm pretty sure they're not smart enough to stall -- they just think music sharing is bad.

It's just amazing that people try to fight the market. The black market of Napster trading has exploded ever since its inception, and in my opinion black markets are products of inefficient markets, not causes of them. The RIAA would have us all believe that Napster has opened up an entire world of bootlegging and piracy that never existed before (yeah, sure) and that the payment scheme has always been fair and pure. It's extremely easy for them to make money as it is now and they don't want to lose their way of doing business. But as I said, it's apparent they realize the importance of MP3, as several executives at major labels have revealed.

I believe that if buying albums were fair for the consumer, then something like Napster would not have done so well, and would have spread so fast. That is how the market works. If there is a niche that needs to be filled, then something will come along and fill it fast. Napster is not a fluke, it is the popularization of a much-needed way of distributing music freely and with all the choice being on the consumer's side. So much of the music industry is built upon what certain people feel we should all be listening to, and how they feel we should be able to obtain it. Electronica is hot in the rest of the world, for example, but it does not get play in the U.S. I feel that if it were more popularized, it would be hot here. Hell, kids gobbled up Prodigy and Crystal Method and Chemical Brothers a year ago. Very good artists never get play because the labels don't think they'll be good for us.

And here Napster comes, letting the masses get songs from their favorite artists, and as an added bonus (along with more information about groups being available online) they get songs from NEW artists that they'd never heard of. I believe that kids have the potential to be far more mature and intelligent about their musical tastes than ever before. They have access to anything they want if they just show a little curiosity, and when these kids grow up, they'll blend more styles into their own music, and music as a whole will become of a higher quality. Kids are far more informed than ever before and we continue to see the effects of that every day.

By not giving us a wide selection of music, by choking the distribution of it, and by keeping prices high, the RIAA has fostered a black market environment for MP3. Napster gives us the choice we've always wanted, and next will be movies, followed by TV programs. You know how you've talked about how you'd love to see this or that movie, or this TV show at this specific time. Why can't you? Because the big companies don't want you to. How long will this continue to be the case? The market will reveal something new to bring all of that to us. Just watch.

It's evident that people will pay money to buy music. I don't know what the RIAA is whining about. CD sales are at an all-time high, and people WILL pay money for services if they feel they are worth it to them. Americans are crawling in money overall right now, and if they can get something that is really good (like netflix.com for DVD rentals, AOL for the all-around Internet experience [yes, I said AOL -- it's at record membership levels], etc.) then they will pay for it. The RIAA seems not to understand this.

I believe that if artists had more connection with fans, then they would see more benefits from MP3s. Some have suggested that artists should use paypal.com or something similar so that fans can send them money directly if they want. Perhaps they could use the shareware concept -- give money to an artist after downloading the music, if you feel like you should. If the amount isn't an outrageous $20, I bet people would do it. Also, if they knew the money wouldn't mostly be going to record labels.

Some artists are saying that people are stealing their property and reducing the money in their coffers. Well, how many artists do you know are poor from overexposure? As I see it, the problem is not with legitimately good artists being all over the place and not making enough money, the problem is legitimately good artists not getting a chance from the record labels to get their music out to the people. Look at the clubbing scene. Those DJs aren't huge names in the U.S. (or even Europe), but their music is played in all the clubs and they become part of the club music zeitgeist and therefore people know their music and buy their music. The better DJs do quite well financially, even though they're not sold in Best Buy or Sam Goody's. You figure it out.

Some say, okay, MP3s are viral and won't go away, but let's be realistic. Money is what the record labels have plenty of, and if they really wanted to, they could shut down the distributing pirate groups and kill off MP3. To this I must disagree. Not only are the pirating groups numerous and organized, they are fed by an unlimited supply of new children with Internet connections who love music and have plenty of time to contribute to ripping and distributing music. People said newspapers could kill off online magazines and newspapers, but instead they've had to resort to putting up their own versions online. People said online retailers and grocers would fail because you'd want to get things in person, especially unique items. Yet online grocers are becoming more commonplace (although not financially successful) and Amazon.com is a household name. The consumer wins in every case here because he is the one who has the wallet that the companies are trying to get into, and the companies have to offer more and more to get business. If you're a traditionalist and you're selling to a consumer, you will get screwed.

I'm glad that MP3 is getting so much press now. It's wonderful watching a video on MTV and then going on Napster to get it, even if the album it's on hasn't been officially released yet. It's great going to a European music top 50 list and downloading their songs off Napster to see what non-Americans are listening to. It's great to not feel like you got ripped off after buying a CD since the prices seem to only keep going up. It's just a great time to be a consumer.

It's good to see things like Limp Bizkit throwing a tour sponsored by Napster. It's good to see Smashing Pumpkins releasing their last album together on Napster to piss off their record label. All sorts of things are happening: you even see the continued dependence on record labels by artists what with the Offspring changing their minds on releasing their album in MP3. Weenies.

One thing that has concerned me though is the reliance on Napster now by the general file sharing public. Napster's demise or at least its crippling is inevitable, and a successor must be chosen. Now, everyone says how great Gnutella is, but its adoption has been slow. And there was a report on how Napster users temporarily went to Gnuzilla when Napster was almost taken down, but afterwards they all went back to Napster. Plus, Gnutella's peer to peer architecture was shown to be incredibly slow and broken as more people used it, with search results failing and general network speed to be very sluggish. Napster is indeed the main lifeline for the MP3 community, although if it were to go down, there'd still be plenty of FTP sites and servers on other sharing networks. It just bothers me a bit that the advocates feel so invincible when their supply lines could be severely hampered.

I'm addicted to MP3s like crack cocaine. It's a way of life for me and many others now. It's like checking e-mail and going on ICQ to message coworkers or friends. We sit in darkened rooms with our twitchy hands trying to maneuver the mouse while we click on more and more MP3s and try to get our fix, losing sleep and muttering nonsense to quell the urge. And the record labels I think deep down are aware of this phenomenon and will eventually begin to embrace the whole movement. You know when an old fuddy-duddy Sony exec says out of one side of his mouth that MP3s are destroying capitalism and the free market, and then Sony on the other hand releases an awesome new palm-sized MP3 player, that the tides are turning.


 
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