shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Napster and the Death of the Album Format

Napster, the wildly popular software that allows users to trade music
over the Internet, could be shut down later this month if the
Recording Industry Association of America gets an injunction it is
seeking in federal court in California. The big record companies in
the association -- along with the angry artists who testified before
the Senate Judiciary Committee this week -- maintain that Napster is
nothing more than a tool for digital piracy.

But Napster and the MP3 technology it exploits have changed the music
business no matter how the lawsuit comes out. Despite all the fuss
about copyright and legality, the most important freedom Napster has
spread across the music world is not freedom from cost, but freedom of
choice.

Napster, by linking music lovers and letting them share their
collections, lets them select from a boundless range of music, one
song at a time. This is a huge change from the way the music industry
currently does business, and even if Napster Inc. disappears, it won't
be easy to persuade customers to go back to getting their music as the
music industry has long packaged it. 

Most albums have only two or three songs that any given listener
likes, but the album format forces people to choose between paying for
a dozen mediocre songs to get those two or three, or not getting any
of the songs at all. This all-or-nothing approach has resulted in
music collections that are the barest approximation of a listener's
actual tastes. Even CD ''singles'' have been turned into multi-track
mini-albums almost as expensive as the real thing, and though there
have been some commercial ''mix your own CD'' experiments in recent
years, they foundered because major labels wouldn't allow access to
their collections a song at a time.

Napster has demonstrated that there are no technological barriers to
gaining access to the world's music catalogue, just commercial ones.

Napster users aren't merely cherry-picking the hits off well-known
albums. Listeners are indulging all their contradictory interests,
constantly updating their playlists with a little Bach, a little Beck
or a little Buckwheat Zydeco, as the mood strikes them. Because it
knows nothing of genre, a Napster search produces a cornucopia of
alternate versions: Hank Williams's ''I'm So Lonesome I Could Die'' as
interpreted by both Dean Martin and the Cowboy Junkies, or two dozen
covers of ''Louie Louie.''

Napster has become a tool for musical adventure, producing more
diversity by accident than the world music section of the local record
store does by design: a simple search for the word ''water'' brings up
Simon and Garfunkel's ''Bridge Over Troubled Water,'' Deep Purple's
''Smoke on the Water,'' ''Cool Water'' by the Sons of the Pioneers and
''Water No Get Enemy'' by Fela Anikulapo Kuti. After experiencing this
freedom, music lovers are not going to go happily back to buying
albums.

The question remains of how artists will be paid when songs are
downloaded over the Internet, and there are many sources of revenue
being bandied about -- advertising, sponsorship, user subscription,
pay-per-song. But merely recreating the CD in cyberspace will not
work.

In an echo of Prohibition, Napster users have shown that they are
willing to break the law to escape the constraints of all-or-nothing
musical choices. This won't be changed by shutting down Napster. The
music industry is going to have to find some way to indulge its
customers in their newfound freedom.



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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source