richard barbrook on Wed, 28 Nov 2001 09:22:34 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Napsterisation of Everything

The Napsterisation of Everything: a review of John Alderman, Sonic Boom:
Napster, P2P and the battle for the future of music, Fourth Estate, London

Richard Barbrook

"They just don't get it." During the dotcom boom of the late-1990s, this
catch phrase was a popular way of dismissing anyone who expressed doubts
about the world-historical significance of the Net. How could someone be so
out-of-touch as not to realise that this technology was transforming
everything: business, politics, culture and even personal relationships?
The future would belong to those did "get it." Yet, only a couple of years
later, such optimism about the potential of the Net already sounds dated.
How can anyone still believe that this technology will change anything
after the implosion of the NASDAQ share bubble and the collapse of so many
dotcom companies. Surely the wild times of the Net were only a temporary
aberration? As Microsoft, AOL-Time-Warner and the other big corporations
take over cyberspace, it will soon be back to business as usual. There is
no longer any necessity to "get it." The Net will change nothing.

John Alderman's new book - Sonic Boom: Napster, P2P and the battle for the
future of music - is a useful correction to this new consensus. Just as it
was once necessary to criticise dotcom boosters, it is now important to
challenge the Net pessimists. In Sonic Boom, John Alderman tells the
cautionary tale of a rich and powerful industry which was determined not to
"get it" - and how it suffered the consequences of this mistake. During the
late-1990s, while so many others were succumbing to dotcom hype, the music
business stubbornly resisted any accommodation with the new technology. Its
corporate leaders used all of their lobbying power and legal resources to
attack the Net. They had the copyright laws strengthened, blocked software
development and closed down websites. They even successfully prosecuted
Napster - one of the most popular services on the Net. Yet, despite these
triumphs, all their efforts could only delay the inevitable. For while
others might comfort themselves that nothing much has changed, the music
industry is finally realising - much to its horror - that the Net is
transforming everything.

Sonic Boom is a journalist's account of this transitional period in media
history. In the best tradition of the genre, John Alderman provides a
well-paced narrative of the key events and insightful descriptions of its
leading players. Above all, he explains why the music business has been so
determined to resist the Net. From its earliest days, the new
communications system was organised around the sharing of information
between its users. Despite its recent commercialisation, this gift economy
remains at the heart of the Net. People build their own websites,
contribute to listservers, send emails and take part in chatrooms. If
someone asks for some information, they are usually happy to give it to
them. As long as the Net was only used by a minority of enthusiasts, the
music industry could ignore what was going on in cyberspace. However,
complacency was no longer an option when advances in hardware and software
meant that large numbers of people started sharing music files with each
other. Meeting through services such as Napster, Net users could usually
find someone who would give them copies of tunes which they are looking for
- and, in return, they were delighted to send out tracks from their own
collections to those who requested them.

For music fans, file-sharing is a dream come true. From the latest releases
to deleted rarities, everything is available for only the cost of
connecting to the Net. Someone somewhere must have made a copy of that
sought-after track from their CD and vinyl collection - and, more than
likely, lots of other people will have copies of their copy. But, for music
industry executives, file-sharing is their worst nightmares about
home-taping from the 1970s come back to haunt them. Although accessing Net
still costs money, downloaded music is free. Worst of all, this hi-tech
gift economy isn't just a short-lived phenomenon. One of the main reasons
why the Net was invented in the first place was to allow file-sharing
between computers in different locations. Over thirty years later, this
concept is at the centre of another wave of technological innovation:
peer-to-peer computing (P2P). Contemporary developers are enabling
computers, mobile phones, games consoles, and all sorts of other devices to
interact with each other. Everything linked with everything. Everyone
swapping files with everyone.

As Sonic Boom emphasises, this utopian vision of ubiquitous peer-to-peer
computing inspired the emergence of a new youth subculture in the
late-1990s. Exemplified by the founder of Napster, talented school kids and
university students wrote many of the pioneering P2P programs. Their
contemporaries were the first to realise the potential of this code - and
were the people who turned peer-to-peer computing into a global phenomenon.
Napster was the icon of this new generation. As John Alderman points out,
the music business has long prided itself in its skill at spotting the
latest trends and its ability to make money out of the most subversive
forms of youth subculture. Back in the 1960s, the hippie generation had
called for political revolution - and broke almost every aesthetic and
social taboo. Yet the music industry was still able to profit from its
cultural creativity. Compared to their predecessors, the ambitions of the
Napster generation seemed much more modest: sharing cool tunes over the
Net. Ironically, it was this apparently apolitical youth subculture which -
for the first time - confronted the music industry with an impossible
demand. Everything is permitted within the wonderful world of pop with only
one exception: free music.

Unlike earlier forms of youthful rebellion, peer-to-peer computing is a
direct threat to the economics of the music industry. Despite the rapid
changes in musical tastes over the decades, the fundamentals of its
business structure have remained the same. Musicians are contracted to make
recordings. Music is sold on bits of plastic to consumers. Copyright laws
ensure that no one can distribute recordings without paying their owners.
Everyone supposedly benefits from this arrangement. Fans are offered a wide
choice of many different types of music. Musicians are able to earn a
living - and a few can become seriously rich. Small companies can survive
by selling niche styles of music. Large corporations can own profitable
music companies as part of their multi-media empires. Having recuperated
successive cultural revolutions, this business structure appeared to be
immutable. It took the arrival of P2P to prove otherwise.

The author of Sonic Boom argues that the collapse of the traditional
economics of the music industry wasn't inevitable. If different decisions
had been made at particular moments, it might have been possible to
preserve copyright within cyberspace. For instance, in the mid-1990s, it
seemed obvious to some dotcom pioneers that the music industry would
quickly embrace the Net. Up to then, the business had thrived on
technological innovation. The electric guitar had inspired rock music. The
CD had given new life to old tunes. Like these earlier inventions, the Net
was simply another improvement in the production and distribution of music.
Learning from experience, these dotcom entrepreneurs were convinced that
old economics would inevitably be replicated in new technologies. All that
would happen is that music would be sold as digital files over the Net
rather than as bits of plastic through record shops. Encryption would
prevent any unauthorised copying of these music files.

As John Alderman relates, these dotcom start-ups were surprised when the
music industry fiercely opposed their plans. Despite the Net hype of the
period, many executives still hoped that the digital future implied nothing
more serious than producing more sophisticated bits of plastic: CD-roms or
DVDs. They were worried that on-line distribution systems would wipe out
their substantial investments in disc pressing plants. Others feared that a
virtual music marketplace would lead to the 'disintermediatisation' of the
industry. The Net might allow musicians to sell tunes directly to their
fans across the world without needing to sign with a major record label.
Either way, these dotcom schemes sounded dangerous. It was much easier to
ignore the Net and hope that it would go away. The music industry was
determined not to "get it."

According to John Alderman, this failure to create a virtual marketplace
for selling music was a fatal error. Deprived of a legal method of
obtaining music over the Net, people began swapping digital copies of their
CD and vinyl collections with each other. Since payment wasn't required,
these music files were usually formatted in MP3 - an open standard without
any copyright protection. Like other Net obsessions, sharing music soon
developed into a fun way of meeting people on-line. Fans could chat about
their favourite musicians while giving away tunes. This underground scene
was given a massive boost by the invention of Napster. Written by an MP3
collector, this program created a virtual meeting-place where people into
swapping music files could find each other. From the moment of its release,
the popularity of Napster grew exponentially. Early adopters recommended
the program to their friends who, in turn, passed on the good news to their
mates. What had begun as a cult quickly crossed over into the mainstream.
For the first time, rebellious youth were identifying themselves not by
following particular bands, but by using a specific Net service: Napster.

A new generation gap had emerged. Each youth subculture achieves notoriety
by antagonising its elders. Just like hippies smoking dope, the users of
Napster were united through a minor form of civil disobedience: breaking
the copyright laws. As in the past, their youthful cool was confirmed when
out-of-touch oldies tried to stop them from misbehaving. But what was
different this time around was that the music industry was leading the
persecution of the new subculture. Outraged at young people getting music
for free, its down-with-the-street rebels quickly mutated into
tight-arsed-corporate conservatives. They compiled long lists of names of
fans who had to be prevented from sharing music files with each other. They
hired expensive lawyers to scare the youth into obeying the law. Rock 'n'
roll had declared war on the Net.

Sonic Boom takes the reader through the twists and turns of the celebrated
court case against Napster. Having persuaded the political establishment to
tighten the copyright laws, the music industry decided to close down the
most prominent threat to its profits. Since the Napster service had become
a dotcom company, it was an easy target. Here was a commercial operation
hoping to benefit from the theft of intellectual property by its users. The
music industry eventually won its case. Napster was ordered to prevent its
users from sharing tunes without paying their owners. However winning a
battle isn't the same as winning the war. Crucially, Napster was an
underdeveloped form of peer-to-peer computing. When it was disabled, people
were forced to move their music file-sharing to more sophisticated P2P
programs: Gnutella, Aimster, Morpheus, Freenet. Ironically, the court case
has provided the opportunity to fix the social and technological flaws
within Napster. A proprietary program requiring a central meeting-place was
being replaced by open source software directly connecting users with each
other. One court case couldn't destroy the hi-tech gift economy.

In his book, John Alderman remembers attending one of the first on-line
music conferences in the mid-1990s where an industry executive declared
that the Net should be immediately closed down. Copyright protection had to
take precedence over technological innovation. In contrast, the author of
Sonic Boom - then and now - does "get it." The music industry has no veto
over the future. Its lobbyists and lawyers can only slow down the spread of
peer-to-peer computing. Sooner or later, file-sharing over broadband
networks will become as unremarkable as making a phone call, watching
television or using a computer today. The utopian vision of the Napster
generation is technically feasible: every tune - ever made - for free.
Quite rightly, what worries John Alderman is how anyone can earn a living
from making music in such circumstances? While almost every other sector of
the economy will be profiting from peer-to-peer computing, the music
industry will have lost its major source of revenue: selling bits of
plastic. Who then will pay the piper?

Sonic Boom begins with an introduction by Herbie Hancock who - not
surprisingly - emphasises this problem. Like so many others, this great
musician knows how the industry has always cheated and exploited both
artists and audiences. Yet, he fears that the cure of the youth might be
worse than the disease of their elders. Musicians could end up the biggest
losers if all music files are free. At the end of his book, John Alderman
outlines some possible solutions to this dilemma. Even if it might have
been possible in the mid-1990s, it is now too late to replicate the buying
and selling of music imprinted on bits of plastic in virtual form. Big
mainframes serving encrypted tunes to passive consumers is a
science-fiction fantasy from the Fordist past. Instead, the music industry
must find some way of commercialising peer-to-peer file-sharing. Even
before the Napster case was concluded, the Bertelsmann corporation broke
ranks with the other major record companies to buy a stake in this P2P
pioneer. For a small monthly subscription, Napster users would be allowed
to break the copyright laws. Soon afterwards, its competitors announced
their own plans for on-line music services. Yet even this compromise may
have come too late. Why would anyone pay for music which is easily
available for free? The old tunes are all available on unencrypted formats
and the protection on new tracks is quickly broken. Once they have
experienced digital abundance, why would anyone welcome the forced
imposition of analogue scarcity upon the Net?

John Alderman believes that more inventive methods must be found to finance
on-line music. Like so many other Californian analysts of the Net, the
author looks back to the West Coast's hippie past for potential solutions.
For instance, the Grateful Dead - a prominent late-1960s psychedelic rock
band - pioneered one promising way of creating an alternative economic
relationship between musicians and their audiences. Although signed to a
major label, its members encouraged their fans to make and trade tapes of
their live performances. Contrary to free market orthodoxy, these
altruistic ethics proved to be financially rewarding. While their
contemporaries faded into obscurity or lost all credibility, the Grateful
Dead are still worshipped by a devoted community of fans long after the
demise of the band's charismatic leader. Any money lost from bootlegs has
been more than compensated by increased sales of their commercial
recordings and of tickets for their live concerts. The Grateful Dead proved
that musicians could earn a good living out of free music.

John Alderman proposes that the music industry should learn from this tried
and tested example. For a start, swapping MP3s should be accepted as the
contemporary equivalent of trading bootleg tapes. Instead of fighting this
phenomenon, corporate executives should realise that giving away music can
be another way of making money. For instance, a tune available for free
over the Net could persuade someone to buy a concert ticket or, as long as
the sound quality remains superior, to purchase CD or DVD versions. Above
all, the music industry must move from selling tunes to servicing fans.
Although young people are reluctant to buy individual tracks over the Net,
they have already shown willing to pay for a more intimate relationship
with their heroes. New releases, concert tickets, celebrity gossip, chat
zones and other goodies can be made available on-line for a monthly fee.
>From being little more than a sideline, fan clubs could become the major
source of revenue for the music industry in the future. As one way of
making money disappears, another may be opening up.

Being a journalist's tale, Sonic Boom can't be expected to provide a
sophisticated theoretical analysis of the economics of the Net. Neither
Adam Smith nor Karl Marx were ever likely to appear in its index. Yet, John
Alderman's populist account is still much more perceptive than most books
or articles on the subject published by academics. Above all, this author
does "get it." No copyright law or encryption system is going to stop the
swapping of music files between consenting adults in the long-run. There
can be no return to business-as-usual for the music industry. It's over,
it's finished. The ideological shibboleths of neo-liberal economics have
been broken. Just as importantly, John Alderman knows that money can be
made inside the hi-tech gift economy. Free music on the Net will provide
wages for musicians - and profits for their employers. A more evolved form
of capitalism will emerge from the advent of ubiquitous file-sharing.

Living in California, the author of Sonic Boom has to concentrate on the
economic consequences of peer-to-peer computing. What has happened within
the music industry is already beginning to spread to Hollywood. With a
broadband connection, sharing movies becomes almost as easy as swapping
music. Lots of jobs and money could be at risk on the West Coast if the
leaders of the movie business repeat the same mistakes made by the CEOs of
the music industry. Sonic Boom has an important lesson to teach them.
However, John Alderman's fascination with the economic impact of the Net
sidelines any consideration of its cultural meaning. Over the past few
decades, musicians have been using computer technologies to change music
itself. Long before people were swapping MP3s, sampling, remixing and home
studios had already redefined the sounds heard in the clubs and on the
airwaves. Above all, these new ways of creating music anticipated many of
the contemporary changes in the economics of music caused by the advent of
peer-to-peer computing. The fixed product has long been mutating into a
fluid process within house music. Despite living near San Francisco's
famous rave scene, John Alderman never discusses this socio-cultural
revolution. While the Grateful Dead may have pioneered new methods of
rewarding artists, their music never evolved beyond the aesthetics of the
electric guitar. Yet, as was pointed out long ago, radical changes in the
economic base of society are paralleled within the cultural superstructure.
By transforming the ways of distributing music, peer-to-peer computing will
also inspire new forms of music.

No book can predict the exact shape of the P2P future. Rather Sonic Boom
should be praised for providing some important lessons from its recent
history. Although they were a minority even among Net users, the Napster
subculture successfully pioneered peer-to-peer computing for the masses. As
increasing numbers go on-line and connections speeds keep rising, more and
more people will come to discover the wonders of swapping information over
the Net. The secret is out. However, as Sonic Boom recounts, there are
powerful interests who are terrified of the social upheaval being unleashed
by peer-to-peer computing. The prosecution of Napster has encouraged more
attempts to reverse the evolution of the Net. Repressive legislation and
technological fixes are still being used to inhibit the spread of
file-sharing. There are even plans to outlaw all computers which aren't
hardwired to protect copyright material! What Sonic Boom does so well is
demonstrate is the futility of these schemes in the long-term. Digital
files can't be confined inside bits of plastic for ever. Instead the music
industry - and other creative industries - will just have to develop more
sophisticated ways of doing business. For peer-to-peer computing isn't
simply a technological leap forward. More importantly, it is also the
catalyst of economic innovation. Now do you "get it?"

Richard Barbrook works for the Hypermedia Research Centre, University of
Westminster, London, England: <>.

Dr. Richard Barbrook
Hypermedia Research Centre
School of Communications and Creative Industries
University of Westminster
Watford Road
Northwick Park


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