Ty Burr on the new software that's turning music into a free-for-all

By Ty Burr
Updated March 09, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Madonna, the Beatles, and Beck — all for no charge?

Libertarian technogeeks have long theorized that ”information wants to be free.” All well and good — but what does that mean when that ”information” is a song by your favorite musician?

If you haven’t heard about it already, there’s a new chunk of software out there that’s standing the music industry on its head. Yes, again. This one’s called Napster, it’s downloadable at http://www.napster.com, and like all such things, it’s the creation of a college student who probably skipped too many classes (but who cares? ’cause he’s, like, a billionaire now). Napster finally makes stocking your computer with MP3 music files extremely easy: Once you install the software, it turns part of your hard drive into, basically, a lending library that anybody can peer into and retrieve music tracks from. Likewise, you can search for and grab all the songs that other online Napster users have on their computers. Which means that you theoretically could, and probably can, collect MP3s of, say, most every Beatles, Madonna, or Beck song ever put on CD. You’d just need a big enough hard drive and a couple of free evenings.

Two groups are up in arms over Napster. Since the software has become an on-campus killer app and since university computer systems have been literally slowing to a crawl with all the Napsterizing, college administrators are busy banishing it from their servers. And needless to say, the record labels are siccing every lawyer they can find on the company. You can read all about this at the Napster website, but what goes unaddressed even there is the nature of the fundamental paradigm shift going on.

Which is: If you can get your music for free, why would you ever pay for it again?

As the generation now in college grows up and out into the world, using computers to download and listen to music is going to become as natural as breathing. And so is the attitude that this stuff is there for the taking. So my question is: IS it? Do you, as a fan of a musician or a group, owe them anything besides your ears? If so, do you then owe the record label that signs them, records them, distributes them, and promotes them anything? And if not, how should the artists, or the label, be compensated for their efforts?

Another question: Do developments such as Napster actually result in artists reaching a broader audience and thereby selling more CDs, as MP3 advocates (in particular, MP3.com CEO and chief blowhard Michael Robertson) assert? Or is that just a rationalization to keep the freebies flowing?

The bottom line, I guess, is this: When technology actually ends up making things easier, it creates its own rules and momentum. The recording industry is going to have to adapt, somehow, to the fact that the Internet is creating (facilitating, really) a mass audience for music piracy. And it’s going to get bigger, trust me. So where do at-home ethics play a part in this, if at all?

I don’t have the answers. Hell, it’s nice to be able to dig up an obscure Beck cut without ripping a CD myself. And I’m leery of the record labels’ terrified attempts to control their copyrights through such developments as Liquid Audio (which lets you download tunes for cash — then lets you listen to them only on one computer). But for a glimpse at what the American music scene could look like in 25 years, cast a glance over to Africa. There, the pirate-music industry is so ingrained that bootleg cassettes of new albums appear the same week as — and are bought in greater quantity than — legal releases. And there the only way musicians can put food on the table is by playing as many concerts as possible. It makes for one hell of a live-music scene — and one skinny profit margin for the artists.