Napster Love

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 May 2000

Like the many who’ve installed the program, I, too, became addicted to Napster. At least for a moment.

Very basically, here’s how it works. The audio information on the CD’s that I play on my stereo can be stored very efficiently on my computer in a file format known as MP3. Each song is a separate file, that I can choose to play right on my computer, or on a portable MP3 device - something much like a walkman, but with no cassette.

Now, thanks to Napster, everyone on the Internet with MP3 files on their hard drives can effortlessly share their files with one another. That’s right - once I install the program, I can search through and copy the MP3 files on anyone else’s computer also running Napster, and they can search through and copy mine. Estimates of the number of Napster users ranges from the hundreds of thousands into the millions.

Most of the current debate about the Napster program, as well as the scores of other “file sharing” programs that are sure to emerge, have to do with copyright violation. Is it legal, or even fair, for consumers to give away perfect copies of music and cut the artist and record label out of their share of the profits? (Incidentally, as someone whose books are frequently photocopied for use by thousands of university students worldwide, I can honestly say it doesn’t bother me in the least. But I’m sure it bothers my publishers.)

The people now suing Napster over this issue have claimed that the moment a person “uploads” a copyrighted song to the Internet, that user has broken the law. But Napster users do not actively upload their songs to the Internet. They simply make the files on their hard drives in their own computers available to other people. This is not a trivial distinction. Napster users do not send or upload their songs anywhere; they merely allow other people to copy the files on their computers. It would be as if I let you enter my home library with a portable photocopier under your arm.

The program’s advocates claim that Napster democratizes the music industry, giving lesser-known bands a new means for distributing their music in a marketplace long dominated by monopolistic major labels. University students, in particular, who do not have enough money to feed their ever-changing appetites for new music, have found in Napster a way to rotate their diet of tunes on a daily basis. Besides, many users sample new music online and then go out and buy the artist’s CD’s, anyway.

Still, I’m convinced that the popularity of Napster, and the quasi-addictive behavior of its users, has less to do with the love of music than it does with hatred of the recording industry. It’s a consumer revolt. Like any revolt, it is not about joy, but rebellion. And, like anything that has to do with consumers, it’s about getting stuff for the very sake of getting it.

To be sure, the music business created the very monsters it is now trying to sue out of existence. Back when the record industry made its historic move from vinyl albums to less-expensively manufactured CD’s, the price of albums did not go down, but up. The extra profit was not passed on to the artists, but to the distributors. Meanwhile, the recording industry’s promotional arms have whetted an appetite for more music than it can produce, no matter how rapidly it churns out new cookie-cutter-5-boy vocal bands with funny haircuts.

Like any computer hack against a government or corporation, a consumer hack is based in the same sense of frustration and anger. Sure, I got an overwhelming thrill the first time I realized just how much music was available to me through Napster at the click of mouse. I downloaded over 50 songs the first night, then ran out of artists to search for and began using random names like “John” and “love” to find songs I may have forgotten about. But this zeal had less to do with appreciation for the music itself than with the fact that I was getting it for free. (Most of the music one finds in the Napster libraries is the same pap available on top forty radio, anyway.) Since that first week, I haven’t used the program at all.

Deep down, Napster appeals to those of us who can’t imagine why a line of people would stretch around the corner unless someone were giving something away on the other end. These days, thanks to our exposure to an endless succession of pitches designed to make us think of ourselves as consumers, this means most of us. Sometimes I worry that the liberation promised by the Internet has reduced itself to an acceleration of this tendency alone.

Internet enthusiasts - like MTVInteractive’s CEO Nicholas Butterworth who I heard at a conference last month - are quick to point out that the web disintermediates the music buying and selection process, allowing consumers to get to the music they want without all the boring research, and without having to ask their friends what’s good.

I certainly hope not. For I don’t believe that music, or recordings of music for that matter, are ends in themselves. I think they’re an excuse to have the very kinds of interactions that people like Butterworth are seeing as obstacles to effortless consumption. The music is the reason we get to have those conversations, go over to each other’s houses, and hang out playing records. I went into three different Napster “community chat rooms” but couldn’t get anyone to chat with me, even though thousands of people were online. I kept typing “hello?” into the chat window, until someone finally responded “WHAT DO YOU WANT!?!” Everyone was too busy voraciously snarfing up music from each other’s hard drives to do anything else. We might call it “the zipless download.”

The object of the game should not simply be to accumulate more music on our hard drives. That’s a goal befitting only a mindless music consumer, well-trained by the recording industry whether he’s buying his music or stealing it. In this sense, the Napster addict is no more a rebel than a victim.