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February 22, 2001

The Day the Music Was Reborn
Napster is going away and I really don't mind

By Mike Haney

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine stopped by to sample how my new DSL connection worked on what he referred to as "that internet music thing." (This is the same guy that for months called the internet "that e-net thing.") He was of course referring to Napster. Now this guy is an obsessive Bob Dylan fan. He has seen Dylan live dozens of times, often dragging friends hundreds of miles to do so. In addition to his exhaustive (and complete) collection of Dylan's studio albums, he owns upwards of 150 bootlegs, which he trades with other like-minded overweight virgins on Ebay. (Well, actually he has a friend take care of the online part of it ... he don't really care for that e-net much.)

After gathering nearly a dozen songs (and watching a dozen more download at up to 100K/sec), my friend turned to me and said, "Mike, I'm serious. This might be the coolest thing I've ever seen."
So imagine the glee on my friend's fat face when he realized not only that there were Dylan songs out there he didn't own, but that they could be his, free of charge, in less than 2 minutes, and all he had to do was sit back and click the mouse. After gathering nearly a dozen songs (and watching a dozen more download at up to 100K/sec), he turned to me and said, "Mike, I'm serious. This might be the coolest thing I've ever seen."

Of course, as we later weeded through the 30 or so downloads, he saw that music paradise does have a downside. Many of the tracks were mislabeled, some cut off early, and some were just flat-out fakery. (In what has been my weirdest Napster experience to date, a track labeled "John Lennon, Bob Dylan & Elvis!" turned out to be a Chipmunks rendition of something by none of those artists.) Despite these drawbacks, my friend was hooked.

I use that word deliberately because I think Napster is very much like a drug. The first time you use it, the rush is astounding. ("Ohh, I didn't know free music could feel so gooood.") As you get more accustomed to it, the rush diminishes but the buzz remains. You start using more. ("There's got to be something else I've always wanted but never bought ... hmm ... Winger had a few good songs, didn't they?") Finally, like an tired old junky, you find yourself slumped in your office chair at 4 a.m., cigarette ash and drool covering your pale body (which is clad only in 3-day old boxers), as you scan the screen for the fastest ping on a mid-70s bootleg Yanni because well, someday you might like him, and damnit, it's free!

Finally, like an tired old junky, you find yourself slumped in your office chair at 4 a.m., cigarette ash and drool covering your pale body (which is clad only in 3-day old boxers), as you scan the screen for the fastest ping on a mid-70s bootleg Yanni because well, someday you might like him, and damnit, it's free!
Or maybe my drug analogy sucks. Maybe after you find all the current albums you want but don't want to buy, and all the live versions of your favorite songs, and all the lone hits that you download and still never listen to, you just let it go. You leave it alone until something else strikes you and you return to it briefly, and then leave it again. Or maybe you've got a 56K and after a week of waiting half an hour for a download only to have it fail halfway through, you realize the music revolution ain't all that grand. Yes, everything you want is out there, but it can be a royal pain the ass to get it.

Not to mention, it's illegal.

We all know by now that last week Napster lost its appeal to the earlier court ruling that essentially stated that while Napster itself may not directly violate any laws, it does help 50 million of its subscribers to do so. (I'm no legal expert, but the ruling seems something akin to taking away the gun to stop the murderer.) Napster tried to defend its existence under the same copyright law that allows companies to sell VCRs, dual tape decks or CD burners, but the court decided that the Fair Use laws that allow you to tape a TV show or copy a CD for your own use didn't apply to Napster.

And goddamnit, it was right.

Look, I love Napster as much as the next guy, especially after getting a high-speed connection. My list of MP3s is so large I often forget what I have and download something twice. I have found some amazing live and acoustic versions of my favorite songs, and been turned on to some great new artists simply because I could sample them for free. I burned CDs for my family at Christmas and if I had a girlfriend, I'm sure I'd make her some killer mix discs.

At the end of the day, we are taking something that's supposed to cost money and we're not paying for it. We're dirty, thieving bastards.
So I would love to defend this rogue technology against the tyranny of The Man. I would love to argue the legal points and claim that there is a reason beyond "I really like it" that Napster should be allowed to exist, but I can't. It is stealing. It's just easier to justify because there's no threat of being caught, and the people we're stealing from are ridiculously rich anyway, not to mention disgustingly petty, (e.g., Lars Ulrich, you hypocritical prick). But at the end of the day, we are taking something that's supposed to cost money and we're not paying for it. We're dirty, thieving bastards.

Then again, it's not like regular stealing. It's not like Metallica has a big computer somewhere containing all their (shitty) music and you're hacking in and taking it. It's roundabout thievery for which there is no real-world analogy. Nevertheless, the court has decided that whatever it is, it's illegal.

And so, in a matter of days, it will be shut down; or worse, will become a subscription-based service, charging upwards of $15 a month to access a much more limited catalog. Either way, Napster as we know it will die. The hardcore users will migrate to one of the hundreds of other peer-to-peer services that have sprung up in the last year. But the majority of us casual users will simply go back to buying our music and lament the days when any song we wanted was a click away. Napster will become a "When I was a boy ..." story for our grandkids.

In a way, I'm almost glad. Having that kind of access to that kind of collection has sort of overwhelmed me. Trying frantically every night to come up with something to search for has at times made me sick of music in general. As my same Dylan-obsessed fat friend would say, "It's too much."

I hate to go all "High Fidelity" here, but I miss my late-night trips to the used CD store, flipping through stacks of countless failed sophomore albums until I found that one gem, that one album I had always meant to buy, or had but lost, or never even knew existed ... and there it is for $6.
I hate to go all "High Fidelity" here, but I miss my late-night trips to the used CD store, flipping through stacks of countless failed sophomore albums until I found that one gem, that one album I had always meant to buy, or had but lost, or never even knew existed ... and there it is for $6.

I miss the excitement of getting home and tearing into that annoying cellophane wrapper, tossing it carelessly around my living room, throwing the new disc in the CD player immediately and then just sitting back and studying the liner notes, reading the lyrics or checking out the thank-yous just in case maybe I was listed.

There is something too ephemeral about downloaded music. Even if you get all the tracks from an album, it never feels like you have an album. You don't get the cover art and the jacket. And it's too tempting not to get all the tracks the artist wanted you to hear in the order they wanted you to hear them.

Napster, in fact MP3 technology in general, may very well kill the concept of the album. MP3s tend to make us think of music more in terms of single, disposable files instead of tangible collections. As the technology to acquire, play and arrange those single files becomes more ubiquitous, it feasible to imagine a world in which artists release songs instead of records. What use would a CD be if it were only going to be converted to MP3s and arranged or listened to at the buyer's discretion anyway?

Napster, in fact MP3 technology in general, may very well kill the concept of the album.
Yes, the same fears accompanied the introduction of CDs, with their ease of moving between tracks and ability to play in programmed modes, but who actually programs their CD player? Because it's a physical collection of songs, we still tend to throw it in and let it play. With MP3s, we'll just have huge repositories of files, likely arranged by artist, that we'll burn haphazardly onto CD-Rs or transfer temporarily into our MP3 players, never forcing ourselves to listen to that weird track number eight, the one that later becomes our favorite song on the disc.

Maybe that's just technological paranoia. Maybe as VCRs didn't kill TV, peer-to-peer services and MP3s won't kill the CD. But they will certainly continue to change and challenge the way we think about and deal with our own collections of music. And call me a traitor, but I'm thankful the United States justice system has delayed that transformation a little bit longer.



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