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Napster on Linux: From a Whisper to a Scream

Why Music Fans Should Embrace Napster

  • March 20, 2000
  • By Kevin Reichard

If anyone needs more convincing that Internet time is a quantum leap past ordinary time, just check out the rapid growth of Napster among computer users of all stripes. Napster is an application that searches for MP3 files across the Internet and transfers songs or albums from one user to another, and there's almost half a million Napster users offering songs via the Internet. Both users need to be using Napster, but there's no intervening server that stores the MP3 files: all files are stored locally, and technically it's one user lending a personal copy of a song to another user, akin to making a mix tape or CD for a friend.

Yes, it's probably illegal as hell: there's no way someone could interpret a personal license to any intellectual property and stretch it to the point where they're allowed to give away copies on the Internet to anyone for the asking. But the music industry, which has aggressively pursued legal action against Internet bootleg sites, now faces the daunting task of going after one user at a time.

Napster comes at a time when there's a wide gap between music lovers, which want a wide selection of music available for download and has shown an inclination to pay for it, and the music industry, which is stuck in the Dark Ages when it comes to copyright protections. Because of music-industry lawsuits, MP3 hasn't yet taken off as the dominant audio format on the Internet: since few major music labels release more than a teaser song in the MP3 format and have actively pursued legal action against MP3 through industry groups, most of what's released in the MP3 format has been unsigned bands who release their songs free of charge via the Internet.

Napster, however, changes the rules. MP3 sites get into trouble because they store MP3 files on a centralized server and are thus an easy target for music-industry investigators. With Napster, only the location of the file is stored on a server, akin to a chat or ICQ server. Napster plays middleman, but the two participants actually perform the transaction.

As a result, Napster users are posting MP3-format songs for the asking. Napster succeeds because the music industry has been so focused on margins and control that they've lost sight of the fact that consumers have the ultimate control of the music. Bootlegs have a long and proud history among music fans: I can remember attending a Beatles convention in 1979 as a college freshman and being awed by the sea of bootlegs openly sold to an adoring public. In many cases, bootlegs were superior to the crud being put out by the major labels: John Lennon's wistful, original recording of Strawberry Fields Forever (which later resurfaced on The Beatles Anthology) was clearly superior to the official version, while live bootlegs from Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen showed a passion that was sometimes lacking in the more antiseptic studio releases. And let's face it: without bootlegs, the Grateful Deal and Phish would be playing the blues in some dumpy bar in South San Francisco. Indeed, with the band's official support of sharing performances, it could be argued that the real source of everything Open Source is the Grateful Dead.

This bootleg era should have taught the music industry some lessons. Passionate fans would purchase anything by their favorite musicians, so that limiting musicians to yearly releases (which was done for retailing reasons, not artistic reasons) artificially dampened the market. Bootlegs served as advertisements for musicians: once you were exposed to the musician, many people would go out and purchase an album. Sure, there would be folks who abused the system and acquired all of their music through bootlegs, but these people weren't going to pony up for major-label releases anyway.

And that's why musicians are so heartened by Napster and the unprecedented openness in the music world. Most musicians are smart enough to realize that fans are won through exposure to the actual music. Yes, shrewd marketers can yield one-album wonders (ice, ice, baby!) but career musicians know that a steady stream of releases, combined with live performances, can make for a long-lasting and lucrative career.

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