A Warning 2 Music Lovers
The recently announced deal between Napster and BMG is sure 2 have generated a fair amount of confusion, not only among the 32 million Napster users themselves, but also among recording artists (whether they r supporters or detractors of Napster), record companies, and the entertainment industry in general.
First of all, the very specifics of the deal itself do not appear 2 b clear 2 anyone yet. There is talk of a subscription-based type of service similar to the service currently offered by Napster. There is mention of the fact that this service would give access to the entire "official" BMG catalogue. Napster and BMG argue that the new service would b added 2 the xisting (free) service, which would not b affected. There was also mention of a $4.95 per month fee, but that was quickly retracted.
All that we know 4 certain is that BMG now has a majority stake in Napster-the-company. What this will translate in2 in the actual virtual world of the Napster community is still pretty much anyone's guess. Indeed, the few facts mentioned above raise many more questions than they provide answers.
A Free Trade Agreement?
One of the first issues is: If Napster indeed retains a free component, what's going 2 prevent Napster users from sharing files from the BMG catalogue 4 free within this component? Will there b some kind of "Napster Police" who monitor the activities of Napster users and punish them 4 any actions that might b deemed "unauthorized"? What kind of punishment system will Napster/BMG use? Will they have legal grounds 2 do so? Will this "Napster Police" let Napster users continue 2 share files from the catalogue of other record companies which r not part of the current deal, such as Warner Bros., EMI, Universal, etc.?
Will Napster users have 2 subscribe 2 the pay-4-service component in order 2 b able 2 access the free part? Will they have 2 provide personal in4mation? (The current registration system only requires a valid email address, which is very minimal.)
Will the pay-4-service component provide MP3 downloads hosted on Napster's or BMG's own servers, or will they still rely on the xisting system of users sharing files with each other? In other words, will they actually ask people 2 pay in order 2 b allowed 2 give away a service (making their own files and Internet bandwidth available 2 others)? It is one thing 2 b against people offering services 2 each other 4 free (at their own cost). It is quite another thing to ask them 2 pay in order 2 b able 2 give away their services. It would certainly defy the logic of trade, in which people usually pay 2 receive services, not 2 offer them. And it would probably b rather hard 2 sell.
Finally, what would the subscription fee b? $4.95 per month 4 "all-u-can-download" access sounds very reasonable, but it certainly doesn't provide any clue as 2 how much of this money &emdash; if any &emdash; would go 2 the artists themselves. Anyway, it already sounds like BMG will never agree 2 such a low fee. A significantly higher fee, on the other hand, is likely 2 drive many current Napster users away, bcuz u have 2 add it 2 their xisting xpenses (computer equipment, Internet access, phone charges 4 European users).
This fee could b compared 2 what happened with recordable tapes a couple of decades ago. The only "fee" ever imposed on users of tape decks was a tax on blank tapes. In the case of computer users, however, the initial purchase of equipment (the computer, including, in many cases, a CD burner) is much more costly, and it is not the only xpense, since they still have 2 pay 4 their Internet connection and blank CD-Rs on a regular basis.
The main obstacle here is that, in spite of its blatant evolution towards a more and more "commercial" environment, the Internet and many of its users r still animated by this utopian spirit of free sharing of and free access 2 "in4mation," and the success of fee-based Internet services remains very limited (mostly in adult entertainment). And we have yet 2 see any sign that either Napster or BMG (or any other major record company 4 that matter) has solved the puzzle of how 2 make a fee-based system really work. The recent troubles of the "Secure Digital Music Initiative" (SDMI) and its failed attempts 2 develop a reliable music watermarking system r a clear indication that any solution in this area — if a solution does indeed exist — is still a long way off.
The other issue facing Napster and BMG is of course that Napster is not the only file sharing system currently available 2 Internet users. Most people who have heard of or r using Napster have also heard of programs such as "Gnutella" or "Freenet." While they might not have bothered 2 xplore those other options -- bcuz Napster provides simply more than enough 2 them -- there is little doubt that any significant changes in the services provided by Napster r likely 2 trigger a massive exodus 2wards those other systems.
If that happens, there will, of course, b growing pains. The technologies on which Gnutella and Freenet r based r still far from being as "mature" and as easy 2 use as Napster. But the history of Napster itself demonstrates that, once something starts happening, it doesn't take long, in the on-line world, 4 the technology 2 mature 2 the point that it starts attracting a critical mass of users.
And the problem 4 BMG and the other record companies is, of course, that it is likely 2 b much more difficult either 2 sue Gnutella or Freenet and their users or 2 "buy" them. The more the archaic, obsolete world of "off-line" companies attempts 2 keep or take control of what's happening on-line, the faster the on-line world evolves in a way that makes it impossible 4 the off-line world 2 keep control of anything. Gnutella and Freenet r not based on the same technology as Napster. There r no central servers, no single company that can b sued. If record companies and their lawyers have worked hard 2 try and grasp the reality of what Napster actually is, they ain't seen nothing yet.
All this raises the issue of how Napster's move was perceived by its users and the music community in general. Did Napster sell out? Since Hank Barry, the current CEO of Napster, took over the reins of the company in May 2000, he has made no secret of his willingness 2 reach agreements with the majors. So the deal with BMG doesn't really come as a surprise. Since May 2000, Napster xecutives were basically already "sold out" 2 the idea of helping the majors instead of "competing" with them. It was just a matter of figuring out a way 2 reach a deal.
On the other hand, Napster users themselves were probably not aware of this at all, and their adoption of the technology at an overwhelming rate has turned it in2 a symbol for something much more radical — something that's definitely, radically opposed 2 any kind of cooperation with the majors. It is there4 very likely that many Napster users r feeling "betrayed" by the company.
However, as soon as Napster changed from being a simple piece of free software written by a clever 19 year old to being an actual company, this was 2 b xpected. A company xists 2 make money, not 2 create some kind of idealistic on-line community of "music lovers" — as opposed 2 the attitude, mentality, hopes and dreams of most of its users. The recent deal with BMG was, in a way, inevitable.
The problem 4 the majors (and now 4 Napster itself) is that this attitude, this mentality, these hopes and dreams might not b so idealistic and so unrealistic as they may think. Initiatives such as Gnutella and Freenet demonstrate that, in the on-line world, new young people keep coming 2 the fore with more and more radical ideas, with a more and more openly revolutionary attitude. And we have yet 2 see r "mainstream" industries — thriving as they r in the current status quo of liberal capitalism that defines r modern society — show clear signs that they r and will always b able 2 keep that revolutionary attitude at bay.
Staying On Guard
In other words, the basic rule here seems 2 b that, no matter what the majors try 2 do 2 seize control of those emerging forces, new, more radical ones keep surfacing, and — thanx 2 the ingenuity of the people involved and the flexibility of the technology — it will become more and more difficult 4 the majors 2 rely on their traditional "weapons" (money, lawyers) 2 keep things under control.
Still, nothing's 4 sure, and the effective monopoly of the five majors might still find ways 2 stifle new attempts 2 circumvent them 4 some length of time. Real music lovers and enthusiasts will there4 need 2 remain on their guard. As we've said b4, the specter of a much darker, sinister society always looms…
Still 2 Visions
Essentially, the recent evolution of the Napster controversy still illustrates a clash between 2 fundamentally opposed visions.
On one hand, we have a policed, "4 profit" world where the only way 2 ensure compensation 4 artists and mostly 4 record company xecutives and stock brokers would b 2 impose rules, 2 establish mechanisms of systematic control that assume that, by nature, people r dishonest and will always try 2 cheat if they r not constantly monitored.
And on the other hand, we have a more "utopian" world (but mayb not far removed from r new reality) where what is assumed is that people, by nature, understand the necessity 2 compensate hard-working artists 4 their work and r very suspicious, conversely (and rightly so), of the real objectives of xecutives and of their claims 2 wanting 2 support artists (rather than exploit them).
The BMG/Napster agreement certainly hasn't resolved the conflict between those 2 visions, quite the contrary. It has clearly demonstrated what the real objectives of Napster xecutives were, and, if anything, it is a clear warning that it is 2day, more than ever, necessary 2 remain very suspicious (in the field of art and music in particular) of any genuine innovation that makes the jump from being the fruit of a labor of love and enthusiasm 2 becoming an organized structure, a "company" which, sooner or later, loses sight of the initial vision of its founders and puts profit and self-preservation ahead of any other goals.