Napsternomics

The Pop Solution to Downloading

Here's the smallest of Napster's ironies: the service shut down last week by Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, then granted a stay of execution by the Ninth Circuit, has 20 million users and is projected to have 75 million by year's end, but remains a beta version—an imperfect prototype. Shawn Fanning and his engineers still haven't connected the 150 or so servers, the impassable islands, that prevent Napster users from experiencing themselves as a true nation: hundreds of thousands of people, tens of millions of free songs, all connected at the same time.

The difference is crucial for the exact reason that Napster can't be replaced by some underground app like Gnutella. Napster wasn't set up to be a hacker's tool, available only to the Internet elites who, in fact, mock Fanning's programming skills. It's pop culture, a slice of American pie—transparently simple, attractive to an instantly vast audience whose very ordinariness gives the lie to the technology's seeming radicalness. Like AOL, Napster feels as comfortable as television.

The popularity of Napster has been interpreted as a revolt against high CD prices, but that's only half the story. Pop music has grown too diverse for listeners to feel comfortable deciding on purchases; radio can't keep up with all the styles and back catalog, a surfeit that will bring us $10-a-month, 100-channel Satellite Radio next year, which still won't be enough. Music fans needed to cut through the maze. Napster turned out to be the answer. Browse Hot Lists and you realize an overwhelming majority use Napster to sample, not to bootleg whole albums.


Music fans needed to cut through the maze. Napster turned out to be the answer.


Eventually, with wider access to high-speed connections, home-stereo devices that play MP3s, and MP3 files that offer imagery and lyrics, Napster may prove a threat to album sales rather than a personalized radio station that likely spurs purchasing. But one thing seems clear: Napster has to be understood in consumer terms, pop terms, not just tech and legal terms.

For example, searching for tracks on the different file-sharing sites is like bargain hunting in used bookstores, but with one difference: The most popular items are the easiest to find and pirate. Everything else is still up for grabs.

Major labels could eventually sue Napster out of existence—of course it violates copyright law. Underground clusters of MP3 traders will never offer enough material to supplant physical product. Ordinary folk won't find FreeNet too user-friendly; its makers have no incentive to sand the edges. The status quo may thus endure a while longer, earning the music industry annual album sales of $140 apiece from 100 million homes.

But as the C. Delores Tuckers of the world have learned, it's impossible to jawbone pop euphoria out of existence. Could that $140 be reclaimed instead through monthly subscription services whose offerings would make Satellite Radio, or Napster, seem puny? Perhaps, but only with a product far better targeted than the "Celestial Jukebox" concept bandied about.

Remember: The goal isn't simply to re-create the chaos of musical options that digitization has delivered; it's to make sifting through it a blast, the way clicking buttons on Napster now feels. The current Napster islands work like a focus group. A few thousand people weigh in on their favorite songs, past and present, to create a track listing more attuned to popular desire than any record store. Still, multiply that by 150 and the drone will be incessant—a thousand Moby downloads to wade through at a time.

The pop answer to Napster's success is for labels to become guides through the clutter of clatter, to shift from being content providers to being context providers. The LP revolutionized pop music by proving that average listeners wanted more than ephemeral hits. In the age of costless copying, new forms must emerge: heavily participatory fan clubs; instant guided tours through the catalog when a Tito Puente dies.

If the flickering of Napster's flame revealed anything, it's that millions would consider purchasing Shawn Fanning's demonstration model. This level of popular excitement always translates into a buying frenzy. It's time for the RIAA and its members to settle the lawsuit and find a spot on the bandwagon. Accept Napster as the new 45; then come up with the new 33 1/3 yourselves.

 
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