RIAA vs Napster
3 August 00
The great irony under which the RIAA's attacks on Napster labor, to me, is that the major labels are really now just paying the logical price for having promoted musicians as interchangeable cartoon figures, and thus bred shallow, fickle listeners with no sense of ethical responsibility. But siding with Napster, however appealing, is inane for two reasons. First, Napster is at heart a system invented by resourceful college students for using the good computers their parents bought them, running on the good networks their parents and/or our taxes paid for, to get music for free, since neither their parents nor the government will buy them all the CDs they want. Napster is no revolution. A real revolution against the music business would consist of people searching out and supporting independent artists and musical styles that haven't been drummed into their heads over shopping mall PA systems and on the soundtracks to demographically-engineered TV shows. Napster is just letting people pirate the crap they're supposed to be buying, and it's thus an argument about money, not music, greed in the name of fighting greed, like stealing the tea off the docks in Boston and taking it home, instead of dumping it into the harbor. If Napster really cared about the nonsense revolution they claim to be leading, they'd just sacrifice themselves and let the next, cleverer, more elusive version of the same idea take over. Napster, the company, is only fighting so hard because they convinced some venture capitalists to give them a lot of money, and now they have to try to make it into more money. There's your noble David-vs-Goliath struggle for you: music-business accountants against high-technology bankers, fighting over exactly how you're to be allowed to listen to mass-produced music that isn't worth fighting over to begin with.
The other bad defense for Napster is that technology can't be stopped, so it's wrong to even try. Logically speaking, this isn't much different from saying that now that we have guns, people are bound to shoot each other, so making laws against it is an exercise in narrow-minded futility. Or that it's pointless to stop people from speeding, since it's so easy and enjoyable to make a car go fast. There are lots of things that we make stands against, in law, even though they're easy to do, and music piracy is far from the most harmless of them, so these lawsuits should surprise nobody. Can the RIAA sue every new tool for clandestine MP3 distribution out of existence? No, but they don't need to. They'll sue two or three and win easily, establishing the precedents, and then lobby for new laws to encode those court victories, and pass the enforcement problem over to the government. You'll still be able to pirate MP3s, like you're still able to buy and sell marijuana. But you'll know that it's illegal, and you won't like the consequences if you get caught.
Of course, that said, if the music business weren't run by lawyers, they'd have realized by now that the most efficient way to bury Napster and all its derivatives isn't to sue or criminalize them, it's to render them irrelevant. The second-greatest irony of this whole mess is that Sony wouldn't have to try very hard to do a ten times better job of getting Sony music to people than Napster does. Three decent web programmers and a room or two of interns could have the whole Sony catalog online, attractively and coherently presented, neatly indexed and reliably available, in a month or two. (They need to do this, anyway, for non-retail purposes; I hereby predict that mainstream radio and Muzak will have gone entirely electronic by the morning of 2 March 2006.) Most of the web sites are there, in fact, they're just missing the MP3 files. Let people download this week's hits for free, and then sell them a subscription that gives them access to the whole catalog. Or sell subscriptions to the new stuff, and give away anything older than a year, since nobody remembers it anyway. Better yet, the major labels can follow cable-TV's lead and sell one subscription that covers them all at once. The average person probably didn't buy more than a dozen or two CDs per year, even before Napster supposedly altered their buying habits (note to survey takers: asking people whether they plan to buy more music now that they've started stealing it is a waste of telephony packets), and the cost of producing download subscriptions will be lower than the cost of producing physical CDs, so they can probably afford to set the price so low that writing software to get around it will just seem petty. Who wouldn't pay twenty dollars a month to be able to download any song ever released on a major label, any time you want to, from fast, easy to use, well-organized and reliable servers, without any ethical remorse (or, for the ethically oblivious, fear of punishment)? The kids get an infinite supply of music for less than they currently spend on things they don't even like as much, the labels get more money from each of them than they were probably making already, and all the music mailing lists can go back to talking about movies and educational policy, instead of debating intellectual-property law.
And what becomes of old-fashioned CDs, and of all the music that doesn't belong to major labels? Some of the smaller labels will try to join in, but they'll quickly discover that distribution isn't the choke-point in the system, it's still attention. It doesn't matter how fast March and Drive-In's servers are, virtually nobody knows they're there, and they aren't going to find out, for exactly the same reason they haven't found out before now. Reliable mass awareness is massively expensive. Once the small labels realize that they're still stuck with the same niche audience they had yesterday, they may realize that the business they ran yesterday still works, to the extent it ever did. I like CDs. I like 45s, for that matter. I buy hardback books, even though I'm so far behind that by the time I get around to reading them they'll already be out in paperback. I go to the theater to see movies I could watch for free on television in six months. I'm willing to pay for these things. If I'm representative, the small-label CD business needn't change at all.
But am I? For the time being, anyway, MP3 fidelity is still much too low for people who really care about music to take it seriously as an alternative to CDs. Another generation or two of compression algorithms and/or bandwidth improvements will solve that, though. (And DVD-Audio and Super Audio CDs are only ways of stalling, even if I'm wrong about 44.1 kHz CD audio being sufficient for human ears.) And then will downloading be so convenient that people who like to hold objects in their hands no longer constitute an economy of scale? Major labels, I think, would love that. The music business has wanted to be the TV business for decades, and switching from shipping to broadcasting will get them halfway there. All the retail book and record stores, of course, will have to close. Same with the movie theaters, when movies follow suit. Same, if we really don't care whether our experiences have tactility, with office buildings and restaurants and roads. Maybe I'm in a hopeless minority, and we will become a shut-in nation, content with nutrient vats and neural taps. If you think that way lies cultural sophistication and a freedom from corporate media hegemony, though, then the corporatists have tricked you into pirating their meme. This is not a noble battle between the anonymous crush of industry and the rights of people, it's a small monster teaching a big monster its next tricks.