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(en) The commoner #7 - Richard Barbrook on The Napsterisation of Everything: a review of John Alderman, Sonic Boom: Napster, P2P and the battle for the future of music, Fourth Estate, London 2001

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 19 Jul 2003 07:08:33 +0200 (CEST)


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"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:
<www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk>.



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