Sunday, March 31, 2002

In the past year, publications from Wired to The New York Times have featured articles on “Digital Music.” The trial of the year in 2000 was that of Napster, the controversial file swapping service turned household name. Record companies have been demonized by popular culture, with record sales declining and Music Award shows receiving record low viewer-ship. However, at the same time, music downloads are exploding. As of this minute, the Kazaa file-sharing service has seen over 52 million downloads, 5 million of which took place in the past week.

There can be no argument now that we are in the midst of a revolution in popular music the likes of which has not been seen since the first record became available for sale. However, while technology continues to be the catalyst for sweeping change in the music industry, this is the first time in which the technology has not come from the music sellers themselves. Quite the opposite, the record industry has been up in arms over digital music and file sharing since the Napster service first went online in 1999.

Music is being piped directly into computers around the world at the rate of millions of songs a week, and nobody is paying a cent for any of it.

What is going on here? How did this situation come about, and what does it mean for the future of music? The short answer is that technology has outpaced the ability of big business to profit from it, perhaps permanently, and that in the coming years, many scenarios seem possible when it comes to the creation, distribution and consumption of music.

What is file sharing, where did it come from, and how does it work?

To be accurate, we must distinguish between two meanings for the term “file sharing.” There is a general meaning, and a more popular understanding of the term. In a general sense, file sharing refers to the process and infrastructure of moving data between connected computer systems. One party uses software to locate the file they need, be it digital text, images, sound, software, or a combination thereof. The data from one computer is then exactly copied bit by bit and sent over to the remote computer, where it is recreated perfectly.

This process should sound familiar, because it is the way that all computer networks operate. In fact, it is not at all inaccurate to say that the internet is a big file sharing service. Email, websites, or software are all equal to computers: simply one’s and zero’s to be shuffled back and forth according to different protocols. So why is there a controversy around file sharing software in the midst of a so called internet revolution? For this answer, one must understand the more popular definition implied by the term “file sharing.”

Several years ago, a process was invented by which the sound files which make up the contents of a compact disk could be individually compressed to a size many times smaller than they occupy on a conventional CD, but without any loss in sound quality. This format was given the name “MP3” (standing for MPEG Layer 3) just as every type of data must be given a name to specify what its contents are and what software is needed to view it. For instance, plain text is given the name “.txt” and files which run themselves, forming programs, are called executable, or “.exe” What is important to understand is that file types have nothing to do with what uses they may have. An MP3 does not imply that its contents are stolen, no more than a text file could be assumed to be a stolen book, converted into electronic form.

But back to file sharing.

Once the MP3 became available, methods were devised so that people could create digital copies of their CD music on their personal computer. They could then create custom play lists or remixes of their favorite songs. Up to this point, there was no problem as far as copyrights were concerned. People had paid for their CDs and could do what they wanted with them. It was not until MP3s began circulating for download on the internet that the problem began. Electronic music was for the first time compact enough to be downloaded across a network within a reasonable time period, and most of what was being downloaded was copyrighted music taken from brand name CDs.

At first, this situation was ignored; it was seen as the equivalent of making a copied tape, transferred to the digital age, nothing to get the attention of lawyers. Not only that, but MP3s were far from being prevalent. Most web site hosting companies choose not to allow MP3s on their servers because of the huge traffic they would generate. MP3 was a novelty certainly, but nothing more.

Then, in mid-1999 a piece of software was released called Napster. Napster acted as a middleman between individuals who wished to trade their collections of MP3 files. A user would install the Napster software, and tell it where on their computer all their music files were. As long as the program was running these files were available for download by anyone else running the program. All the files in existence among the Napster “community” were indexed in a massive database which allowed people to search out their favorite songs and trade them. As one writer put it, all the music was owned by everyone at once, in a sort of "dot communism."

Napster was a big hit among teenagers and college students but soon grew to encompass computer users of all kinds. It was not long before it became the single most downloaded piece of software in computer history. At its peak, Napster was running on the computers of over 30 million users worldwide, trading millions of songs a day. It was at this point, in mid 2000, that record companies began to realize that they had a problem. Millions of people were sharing copies of music back and forth without paying. As far as The Recording Industry Association of America(RIAA) was concerned, this represented a massive theft ring that needed to be shut down.

For the next 2 years, Napster Inc. and the RIAA were locked in a bitter court battle over the legality of the file sharing system. All the while, the popularity of the software continued to grow. At the same time, another party emerged to engage Napster in litigation, but this time it was not a massive corporation trust or organization, it was a rock band.
One of the most popular heavy metal bands in the world, Metallica, had their lawyers compile a list of thousands of Napster users who had downloaded copyrighted Metallica songs over Napster on a given weekend, and presented the list to the Napster Company, demanding that those users be kicked off the system permanently. After a short period of deliberation, Napster agreed, and thousands of Napster users were banned from the system for having downloaded Metallica songs without payment.

This was the first major blow to the future of file-sharing, the first sign that perhaps the free ride was over, and such services as Napster could indeed be shut down. Finally, in early 2001, Napster was indeed found guilty in its battle with the RIAA, and forced to shut down and restructure a new pay for download service. Having been cut off from access to free, unlimited music, Napster’s popularity quickly died, and fans went in search of a new source for their newly accustomed taste for free music. It would seem obvious at first that once Napster was beaten, others of its kind would quickly be shut down as well, but for a second time, technology provided a way out.

The reason that Napster was held responsible for the illegal piracy of music that went on over its system was the fact that an index of all the available files were stored on a massive central database, which regulated the flow of traffic between users. Because of this, the courts found, the company could reasonabley be expected to prevent the sharing of copyrighted music files, and when it did so, nearly all of the music being shared on Napster became unavailable.

The difference between Napster and other services, such as Kazaa, Gnutella or MusicCity Morpheus was that they utilized completely different technology for their file sharing system. Instead of a central index of files stored on a company owned server, these new software systems turn each individual computer logged on into a server in itself. The files and their names existed nowhere but on the hard drives of the persons using the software, and therefore there was no way to shut it down, no plug to be pulled - but in the homes of millions of computer users worldwide.

This method of file sharing has proved remarkable effective, because while the service itself could be shut down, they Company has no knowledge or control over what is being shared by its users, and therefore cannot be held responsible for any piracy that goes on – or so the argument goes. Thus far, no legal proceedings have been effective against Kazaa, Streamcast (the owners of Morpheus) or other File Sharing software companies. It is beginning to appear that file sharing technology has reached a sort of plateau, where the current application is powerful, widely popular, and resistant to litigation by software companies. Whether file sharing is legal or not, there seems to be no stopping it now

How Has File Sharing Changed the Nature of Popular Music?

Music has always been closely tied to technology, both in its development, and its distribution. Before recording, music was both a luxury enjoyed by those who could afford to see live musicians and a traditional, folk art. Music never sounded the same way twice, for every performance was different. Folk songs could hardly be “copyrighted” when they altered and changed with every performance. To place the authorship of a piece of music on a single individual was as impossible as it was unthinkable. (1)

The recording of music was the most significant change to occur, for the sole reason that it created popular music. A particular performance could be saved forever, that single performance could be owned by many, many individuals. Music had both been productized, for the first time, and it had begun the process of archiving it for the future. This process came with both benefits and negative effects. While music which once might have been lost was not preserved on record, it also meant that the spontaneous, ever changing nature of folk music would never be the same. Authorship could, and was assigned – songs changed much slower, if at all, and music was never the same.

Now, with the notion of free ubiquitous music traveling across the internet all the time, music again faces a massive change. Several things become immediately apparent when examining this new technology. Firstly, we must assume that for better or worse, the file sharing revolution will not go away. Be it legal or not, the box has been opened and cannot be closed again. No amount of pressure from the industry can prevent it; no more than anyone could save traditional folk music from the effects of recording. With this in mind, several things can be speculated about where music will go from here.

As the internet and computer technology continue to become available to more and more people, recording music as for a profit activity will become less and less viable. CD sales will continue to decline as the internet becomes the primary means of obtaining music, and artists seeking exposure will use the internet as their sole means of distribution.

The danger present in this scenario is that the music industry will essentially die out. Band and artists will no longer be able to make money from their work, and fewer musicians will create new works. This is indeed a possibility, but just as the internet may deter professional musicians, it may also encourage amateur music creation at a rate never before seen.

Online, every musician is equal – they all compete for the same audience with the same power of distribution. In times past, record companies served an important purpose: providing a selection of music to an audience with limited resources for consumption. However, with the technology of file sharing, there is no reason to have the selection of music limited by what record companies are willing to promote. Music is becoming free and instantly available, so the process of selecting of what is good and what is not has shifted form advertisers trying to win the disposable income of music buyers to the audience themselves. We should expect to see new and creative methods of categorizing and ranking music by fans to appear on the internet in the next few years, as a flood of potential music makes the determining factor in the choice of music time, not money. As one writer has proposed, perhaps a dewy Decimal system – like that used to sort books in libraries – will be needed to categorize music online once the filter of the recording industry has been removed.

In any case, what this amounts to is the elimination of “popular” music in a sense. When music is broadcast across the internet by both amateurs and professionals, at no cost, musical tastes will be individualized in a way not possible before. Fans will select new genres and artists based on the input of those who share their tastes – fan groups can be compiled by file sharing software, connecting people who exhibit similar choices in their collections of music. The artists themselves will no doubt evolve, connecting directly to their fan bases to build an audience.

Signs of this change already exist: already communities of fans are connecting through file sharing software, and through websites like, unsigned bands are making a name for themselves through download rankings and genre based charts. We are seeing the beginning of a completely grassroots music culture, where advertising, corporate sponsorship, and record contracts are more of a hindrance to the flow of music, fandom, and inspiration than they are a boon.

The Future of Pop Music

If the past is any indication, the driving force in the future of pop music will continue to be technology, and file sharing will continue to be a big part it. Already, consumer products relating to file sharing are becoming hugely popular. Personal MP3 players and jukeboxes such as Apple’s iPod are becoming the method of choice for portable music, and as storage prices continue to drop, the prospect of carrying one’s entire collection of music at one time seems more and more a possibility.

Having access to such a massive wealth of music in one’s pocket will no doubt have a lasting effect on pop music as well. Extended listening sessions need not be conducted within a particular room in one’s home. With literally thousands of songs instantly available in such tiny personal devices, music is reaching the point where it provides a soundtrack to a person’s daily life. Music is always there, in the background of whatever tasks are being conducted, and this may very well affect the way music is produced.

Perhaps in the future, people will sort music into genres not by vague differences I their style or production, but by how it is used. Office music, walking music, driving music, perhaps even sleeping music – could be the new genres of popular music in the 21st century. With wireless technology connecting computer devices around the world, the next ten years may well see streaming music providing a personally customized radio station for every individual - there is literally no telling how far digital music can go in shaping the experience of listeners around the globe.

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