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The Future Of Music Essay, Research Paper

In 1998, a computer science major at Northeastern University, sat in front of his computer and started to create a program that would help the common man, spark controversy, and change and revolutionize the music industry. His name is Shawn Fanning, and his creation is Napster. Napster would forever change the way people would listen, share and acquire music, and the music industry would never again be the same.

Napster, launched early in 1999, allows Internet users to share and download MP3 files directly from any computer connected to the Napster network. The software is used by downloading a client program from the Napster site and then connecting to the network through this software, which allows sharing of MP3 files between all users connected to the network. While Napster does not condone copyright infringement, there is no opportunity in the software to stop this from happening, or for a percentage to be paid to artists whose songs are being duplicated for free.

Unlike similar file-sharing applications (such as Gnutella, or Freenet), Napster limits users to uploading/downloading of MP3 files only. These files are compressed wave (.wav) files. The advantage of MP3 files is that they are approximately one-tenth the size of the corresponding .wav file and can be close-to-CD-quality. It is for this reason that many artists, record labels and other music industry stakeholders are concerned by the MP3 file format and applications like Napster that simplify the sharing of copyrighted material.

The reaction from recording artists has been varied, but primarily anti-Napster. Hip-hop artist Jay-Z had this to say:

“I believe that if someone spends time making an album, putting their heart and soul into it, that their music shouldn’t be traded so freely.”

While mostly record industries and musicians have been in opposition to Napster, there are still artist that support the Napster cause, such artists include Dave Matthews, Madonna, Fred Durst, B.B. King, Dave Grohl, Ben Folds, U2’s Bono, and many more. Dave Matthews said this in defense of Napster:

“Napster: It is the future, in my opinion. That’s the way music is going to be communicated around the world. The most important thing now is to embrace it, and that was the spirit by which we did this co-promotion.”

In all this talk and controversy the first action to be taken against Napster was by the band Metallica. In April of this year, they sued Napster Inc for copyright infringement. The case was settled out of court when Napster agreed to ban some 300,000 users who had allegedly downloaded Metallica songs. After the ruling Metallica made the follwing statement:

“From day one our fight has always been to protect the rights of artists who chose not to have their music exploited without consent. The court’s decision validates this right and confirms that Napster was wrong in taking not only Metallica’s music but other artists who do not want to be a part of the Napster system and exploiting it without their approval.”

Again in June, Napster Inc. was sued for copyright infringement by The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a trade group representing the US recording industry, alleging:

“Napster is… enabling and encouraging the illegal copying and distribution of copyrighted music”.

Napster claims that ‘Audio Home Recording Act’ permits copying of material for personal use, allows its uses to swap MP3s. The trail on Napster’s ‘swapping’ technology has turned into a debate over the 1st amendment. Napster claims that their product should be covered by freedom of speech, the industry argues back saying that the freedom of speech doesn’t cover copyrighted material.

Other artists and record labels have responded to Napster and similar applications in a more positive way, embracing the new technology rather than rejecting it. On their website, the Offspring says:

“MP3 technology and programs such as Napster [are] a vital and necessary means to promote music and foster better relationships with our fans.”

Interestingly enough, the Offspring’s last album, Americana, was made available online illegally before commercially released, yet it is the band’s best-selling album to date. Furthermore, a number of surveys have proven that Napster users actually buy more CDs, after ’sampling’ the songs online. It is this issue that is at the core of the RIAA lawsuit; whether Napster and similar programs will mean a drop in CD sales. Although Napster does challenge the traditional distribution of music (CDs, cassettes, etc), whether this should be viewed as a threat or simply a new medium to be exploited by the music industry is another issue. The fact that Napster is free and more convenient than visiting a record store makes it an appealing way to get music for consumers to get their music, rather than going to the local music store and coughing up 15 dollars.

The problem the record companies have is that there is no way of regulating who has access to the information, and hence no way of profiting from it. And that’s what it all comes down to, money. In a recent study of music stores in a 5-mile radius of 3,000 colleges, it showed that sales at those stores dropped 4 percent from January 1997 to March 2000, showing a significant decrease in sales in an area that would be more deeply affected by Napster, than normal cities. However record sales overall have shown a significant increase of 9 percent, in recent years. So the debate on whether the program Napster decreases industries sales still continues.

While Napster does allow music sharing to an extent that could theoretically destroy the retail music industry, stopping Napster will not stop all their problems. Record labels need to see this new technology not as a threat, but as a challenge. They need to come up with ideas to encourage people to buy CDs. According to John C. Dvorak of PC Magazine:

“By my calculations, the record companies can make as much or more money by abandoning their old business model and going with Napster’s. They should look at the numbers, do the math, and then form a massive joint venture with Napster…If 50 million users each paid $10 a month, or $120 a year, for unlimited access to everything, the service would gross $6 billion annually. Most of this money would be redistributed to the artists and labels, as determined by various contracts… The $6 billion a year would be right off the top and amount to almost pure profits, because the cost of distribution is nil. Possibly, the record companies and artists actually could make more money from this source than from conventional CDs.”

On February 20, 2001 Napster made proposals with major record labels to make this dream a reality. Napster’s proposal was to pay $1 billion dollars to the major labels, songwriters and independent labels and artists over 5 years in exchange for copyrights and legal use of their songs for file transfer. By doing so, Napster has stated that in the early summer, sometime around July, it will start to charge a monthly fee for usage of their product. Although no set fee has been set, it would be safe to say that the price range would be between $5-10 dollars. This is just one example of Napster’s attempt to change their current method to meet the satisfaction of both the consumer and the industry. There are many alternatives towards the reconfiguration of a product like Napster, to shut it completely down would be a tremendous tragedy.

Back when radio got popular, artists and record companies complained loudly that they would never make another dime, because everyone would listen to radio, and never buy a record. This didn’t happen, of course. It also didn’t happen when the Film Industry was afraid VCRs would wipe out their income from piracy. So, there is no reason to suppose a new stream of income for artists won’t appear to replace what might be lost through a service like Napster. However, so far there is no good model of how artists might get paid in a culture that gets it’s “musical content” for free. But a real truth is that even if the RIAA wins its battle against Napster, MP3 file sharing will not stop. As we speak, dozens of Napster clones are being created, and unlike Napster, these new creations cannot be shut down nor controlled. The RIAA should embrace Napster for what it’s worth, a tool, one to be used to distribute, advertise and create music. After all music is meant to be shared and expressed, not be held and controlled by the likes of the RIAA. Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day once said about his music:

“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.”


Napster – 5/9/01

RIAA: Who We Are – 5/9/01

RIAA: Napster – 5/9/01

RIAA: On Deck / FAQ on Napster and Digital Music – 5/9/01

The Offspring: MP3 Technology and Napster – 5/9/01

Smith, Tony. “Napster Boosts CD sales: survey.” The Register – 5/9/01

“Napster not Protected by Copyright Law.” USA Today – 5/9/01

Cohen, Adam, “A Crisis of Content”, TIME Magazine, 10/2/00

Dvorak, John C., “Do the Napster Math”, PC Magazine, 5/1/01

Greenfield, Karl T., “Meet the Napster”, TIME Magazine, 10/2/00

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