What We’re Fighting For

Is more music for more people.

I’ve felt a strange ennui for the last couple of years.  The music sphere, it’s just not that exciting.  Could it be my age? Or the acts purveyed?  Possibly.  But I just don’t care as much as I used to.  The new releases come and go, nothing seems to gain ubiquity and nothing seems to stick.  SoundScan numbers go down and concert attendance doesn’t jump either.  It seems that the business is running on fumes.  At least to me.

Then I watch something like "The MP3 Revolution: iPod" on the Discovery Science channel and I’m reminded of the way things used to be, when I combed the Net for news, when music was the paramount art form, back in 2000, at the height of Napster.

The YouTube revolution?  Doesn’t hold a candle to Napster.  Napster caught us off guard.  Unless you had a high speed connection, unless you were computer savvy, unless you were in COLLEGE, you were out of the loop!

What was wrong with CDs?  Sure, vinyl was better, but we didn’t hate the format.  And for people like me, who can get anything they want for free, what difference does it make that you can steal it?

What killed the record industry was "Newsweek".  When it put Napster on its cover in the spring of 2000.  Suddenly, everybody was aware, and everybody wanted to play.

But not me.  I was on a Mac.  Those songs…well, they weren’t exactly stolen, technically it was copyright infringement, but bread was being taken from artists’ wallets, it wasn’t FAIR!  And then I used Napster.  And although I still thought it was an infringing service, I was converted, it wasn’t the most exciting musical development since MTV, it was the most exciting musical development since HENDRIX!  At one’s fingertips was not only the history of released music, but UNRELEASED TRACKS!

One of my cherished Napster downloads is Bonnie Raitt doing Blind Faith’s "Can’t Find My Way Home", with Lowell George and John Hammond, Jr., live at a radio station.  Sure, the sound might not be perfect, but there is NO BETTER SONG than "Can’t Find My Way Home", it’s got the intimacy of great rock and roll, and to hear a take by some of my all time favorite musicians?  WHEW!

You see I went to visit my sister in Minneapolis.  She’s now a Mac Chick, but back then she was still living on the dark side, in PC Land.  And when I entered the house, she told me they had NAPSTER!

So I went down to her basement, where the computer resided, brand new, with a cable connection, probably the first on her block, and Wendy showed me she’d downloaded Art Garfunkel’s "Breakaway", a track she loved, fully available at retail, but which she’d never bothered to purchase, not wanting the whole album.  And King Harvest’s "Dancing In The Moonlight"!  I remembered buying her the album over a decade before, just so she could have this most treasured track, one totally unavailable, which only a sleuth like me could find in the cut-out bin.

But suddenly, EVERYTHING was available!

Oh, that first week in Minnesota, I downloaded live Shawn Colvin and Mary-Chapin Carpenter duets.  And from that Joni Mitchell TV show, Cyndi Lauper’s take of "Carey".  Have you HEARD THIS?  It’s still unavailable at retail, at the iTunes Store, but you can now SEE IT on YouTube!  Yup, go to:

Cyndi Lauper – Carey

endure Ashley Judd’s too long intro, and DEDICATE yourself to the performance, hang in there.  You’ll be positively BLOWN AWAY!  You’ll understand why Cyndi Lauper still has a career.  She turns the song into something completely different, this is live performance at its finest.  And isn’t it fucked up that you can SEE IT, albeit illegally, but can’t LISTEN TO IT?

The excitement of YouTube, that endless surfing to see rarities, that’s the way it used to be in music, in the heyday of Napster.  This is what the major labels and the publishers, the rights holders, killed.  To the detriment of us all.

The first thing I did when I got back to Santa Monica was to call Adelphia.  To order a cable modem.  And as soon as it was delivered, I downloaded the now available MACSTER, which allowed Apple people to play in the Napster world.  My first track?  Argent’s "Liar", which I always loved and couldn’t rationalize buying the whole album for.  And KISS’s "Lick It Up", one of the few tracks by the band I EVER liked.

I’d spend whole DAYS downloading music, in print and out of print, commercially available and not.  After midnight, certain rarities would become available because Europeans had woken up and come online.  And I discovered the best time to download was on Saturday afternoon, because everybody was home doing the same thing I was.

I’d go places, and that would be the discussion.  Did you get THIS from Napster?  How about THAT?

I don’t have this kind of discussion anymore.  We talk about "American Idol", or food, but that zeal in people’s eyes when it comes to music?  That isn’t there.  That’s what’s MISSING!

But the problem’s been solved you say, with the iTunes Store.

Well, as you can see from what I’ve written above, a great deal of the excitement never makes it to Apple’s retail environment.

And Rhapsody and the newfangled Napster?  I’ve got a subscription, but…there’s just something different about owning things.  And, you’ve got the same availability problem you do with the other legal stores.

Yup, we’ve turned music acquisition into a legally approved service, we’ve just killed all the excitement in the process.

I’m not gonna download a hundred tracks on a Saturday afternoon from the iTunes Store.  You’re right, I don’t want to spend a hundred bucks.  To find out MOST of what I’ve downloaded I DON’T LIKE!  Napster changed the equation, from paying up front to paying after the fact.

Wait a second, nobody paid for Napster.

Bertelsmann wanted a legal service, but Warner, Universal and EMI sued them for copyright infringement.  Yup, the plaintiffs won (technically, settled).  And Capitol Records doesn’t even EXIST anymore!

But what I miss most is that excitement.  Of going online to see what was on EVERYBODY’S HARD DRIVE!  You mean I wasn’t the only one who liked this?  Or THAT?

You can’t understand if you didn’t play.  You can’t understand if you still don’t play on the facsimile known as Limewire.  It’s like talking about sex having never done it.  You can’t really speak with authority until AFTER you’ve lost your virginity.

The old wave players are fighting to keep an old business model.  Wherein you pay the equivalent of a buck a track, suddenly $1.29.  No more music is consumed, if they’re lucky, and so far they haven’t been, they’ll be able to replicate their CD business.  Growth?  Most people don’t even play.

Yup, most people don’t buy music.  And many that do purchase very little.  But it was THESE people who were drawn in by Napster.  They wanted to know what was going on the same way you signed up for a MySpace account, and now FaceBook.  Napster was where it was happening.  A small fee to allow these non-players to suddenly play?  And get hooked?  Yup, music is like dope.  You taste a little, you want a lot.  You want not only the tracks, but to go to the show and buy the t-shirt.

It’s like cell phones.  You’ve got to lower the price and let EVERYBODY partake.

But that’s not the game the rights holders are in.  They’re just trying to maintain what they once had.  Spreading the word that P2P is illegal, by suing people, they’re CONTRIBUTING to the death of the business.  The casual user doesn’t stop trading and start buying, he NEVER BOUGHT!  He just gives up, and surfs YouTube.  Hell, it’s not worth the lawsuit.

You’ve heard of winning the battle but losing the war?  That’s what the music industry did.  So busy protecting its rights under an old model that the public abandoned it.  So, the concert business makes its nut by charging stratospheric prices for oldies acts.  What happens when those performers fade away forever?  Who’s going to sell out arenas then?  How much revenue are the labels going to book when the CD dies?  There’s no preparation for the future, no handing off to the new generation, no confrontation of reality, just smoke and mirrors telling everybody that you must respect the law, and keep things the way they used to be.

Talk to an act.  There isn’t one alive that hasn’t gotten an e-mail from a fan telling them that their music kept them alive, kept them from committing suicide.  THAT’S the power of music.  Shouldn’t MORE people have it?  Shouldn’t MORE lives be saved?

I was watching this TV show recounting the history of online music and I felt my adrenaline pump, I was reminded of the way things used to be.

I want that excitement back.

People should pay for music.  But should they pay the same amount for even less than the same thing?  Does the Net not give us any advantages?  With a store in EVERY house?  And distribution expenses SO LOW?

Anything that restricts the free flow of tracks actually HURTS the business.  Because in an era where radio is an untrustworthy joke, it’s the PEOPLE who spread the word.  Monetize this behavior, don’t eviscerate it.

This is a read-only blog. E-mail comments directly to Bob.