The Yap of Nap
While the salivating ears of millions of college students wait, their darling Napster is locked in battle with the monolithic U.S. government. Napster, the largest online file-sharing service, is battling for its very existence, accused of facilitating copyright infringement on a grand scale. And boy, are the record companies pissed. But, interestingly, they are not as hotheaded and downright angry as the Napster regulars.
It seems that most Napster purveyors are the amoral type, those who do not really think about the moral consequences of duplicating copyrighted material and just want to soak in the bone-rattling bass and adequate mechanized drumming of the latest Top 20 hit. But the harder-core users of Napster, the real "music lovers," those who know the difference between the Waters (Roger and Muddy), are faced with a moral dilemma. These die-harders are forced to realize that their file-sharing has decreased the demand for their pet artists, and is financially hurting those they love. This smaller, more vocal, and active subclass of Napster users inevitably comes to believe that it is in the vanguard of an advancing tide of revolution.
In true Leninist spirit, they proclaim that a "revolutionary situation" is upon us. The great masses are tired of being tyrannized by the capitalist robber barons (read: record companies) and the revolutionary leaders need only channel the rage of the masses to topple the bourgeois record companies and free humanity forever from the tyranny of the "music industry's corporate elite."
This counter-culture's penchant for revolutionary language is, in my eyes, their most endearing aspect. Napster and other elements of the imminent "digital music revolution" are acting only in accordance with the basic truth of Internet communications, namely that "information cannot be stifled and must always be set free." The goal of the revolution is to "subvert the music industry's control over the distribution of music," and to place the reins of music back in the hands of The People.
Another argument of these neo-Leninist-hippie types is that this form of intellectual property infringement increases social awareness. Only through the free distribution of artists' work can we be educated in the immense diversity of music in its many incarnations around the world. The great Internet will allow us all to sing Kumbaya together if only we could light the Sterno flame under the melting pot with unlimited distribution of copyrighted materials.
Ironically, this group of evangelical guerillas fighting in the name of "information freedom" by programming new peer-to-peer file transfer applications, and fomenting anger against intellectual property as an institution are preventing the Internet from becoming a haven for just the kind of artists they wish to free from the current tyrannous, bourgeois-dominated market. These revolutionaries, like so many radicals in the past, have forgotten that their enemy is the recording industry bureaucracy and its market power, not the artists themselves.
Even leaving aside the important moral legitimacy of intellectual property, a simply utilitarian look at the Internet as a potential market for music condemns these attempts at "de-marketifying." In a truly competitive Internet market, overhead for recording music is near zero and those hated music executive middlemen would be eliminated because artists could market their own work, and keep their entire profit margin. Of course, this is assuming that the Internet could provide a legitimate and secure market for music, something that in this age of rampant piracy seems difficult to imagine.
By encouraging the irresponsible and unrestrained duplication of copyrighted material, the intelligentsia at the head of the "revolution" are undermining any confidence in a potentially viable Internet market. If the guerillas get their way, and distribution of music on the Internet becomes free everywhere, only big-name record labels will be able to maintain profits through merchandising, hyping the next teen divas, selling the posters of their glistening, glittering bodies and packing stadiums with screaming tweens. Artists will then be denied even the income that smaller record deals now afford them. Far from creating a musical utopia, the elimination of the Internet as a market for music would exacerbate the already near-monoculture of pop music that clogs our airwaves.
Responsible music aficionados should hasten the destruction of the musical middleman, but not at the expense of the artist. The rebels ought to use their positions of leadership in the cyber domain to create a viable direct music market, allowing the entire profit margin to be kept (at will) by the artists themselves.
The paradigm shift in music distribution and monetary disbursement this would entail is the real, albeit more capitalistic "digital music revolution" yet to come.
B.J. Greenleaf '01 is a physics concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.