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<nettime> Napster: a review
patrick lichty on Thu, 15 Jun 2000 18:37:24 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Napster: a review


Napster has been one of the hotter issues in the music industry as a whole,
both offline and online, with its ability to share MP3 files at will
through a distributed online community database.  This tool has spurred a
lawsuit from the RIAA claimin "Contributory" effects in the area of
copyright infringement.  Furthermore, prominent artists have taken sides on
the matter, with the most notable instance being Metallica, who obtained a
list of over 300,000 users who had 'shared' Metallica MP3's in declaring a
formal complaint to Napster.com.  Is Napster worthy of the demonization it
deserves?  In answering this question, I decided to install it and
experience the community first-hand.

OVERVIEW
Napster's online database of songs is entirely dependent on the libraries
of the online participants, as the index of the communal database is held
in the Napster servers.  It features extensive search capabilities,
allowing the user to choose numerous criteria from the user database (such
as speed, MP3 file bitrate, and ping time).  I usually found my results to
be better during the morning in the Eastern US, as much of my taste ran
along european electronica, and a logical assumption would be that most of
the fans of the bands I wanted to hear were in the midst of their online
session for the evening.  The communal aspect of the database does lend a
certain dynamic quality to the ability to obtain a specific song, as there
is no assurance that a given user will be online to share the music with
you.  One can add users to a specific hot list of individuals, as a
'Lemon6' told me, to be able to see when users 'who had great stuff' would
be online.  The software includes a personal messenger  and chat room
abilities, therefore reinforcing its communal infrastructure.  

PRACTICE
But how does all this relate to the Over a one week period, I searched
through various electronica and obscure techno, and was able to obtain
nearly 1.7 Gigabytes of MP3 information, or the equivalent to 30 CD's.
Given that the average CD in the US costs about $15, the downloaded
information in one week totaled $450 in possible revenues.  To exaggerate
the point, if I had done so for an entire year, such an endeavor would have
'saved' me somewhere in the range of $23,000. Even with the online scheme
of $1 per song, the potential revenue  is closer to $16,000.  

Multiply this by 300,000, and one gets exaggerated figures upwards of 6-8
billion dollars in revenue lost.  However, figures like this are grossly
exaggerated, but do pose a point, one that is being pressed by the RIAA in
court.  To only consider this dimension of the Napster question would be
overly reductive, and must be held in context with the other issues in
play, such as independent exposure, redundancy of out-of print media,
access, and recording quality.   

CAVEATS/DEFENSES
As mentioned, bands like Metallica see Napster as a threat to their revenue
stream as potential CD sales are diminished through the distribution of MP3
data.  From the hypothetical figures listed above, the RIAA may have some
cause for worry in regards to Napster's clientele, but other factors come
into play.

For example, there is a D&B artist named Talvin Singh who I had never been
able to find any CD's of in my locale.  I was able to find a scant handful
of songs through Napster, and from the sample that I got, my interest in
the artist is such that my wallet will speak for that interest. Although
some would argue that 30-second samples on a retailer's website would
perform the same function, Artists such as Singh either have not been
available to me or presented themselves such that I have had access to that
information, and Napster was a way to listen to the work.  An important
note is that seldom have I encountered complete CD's online, and the
Napster archives have either shown a partial database of an artist's more
popular work except in the case that a fan who would be likely to have a
comprehensive collection is online.  Except in specialized cases, the norm
seems to be the 'hunter-gatherer', who has a piecemeal archive of songs
from the Napster community.

Artists whose libraries are long out of print find new life on Napster.
Art of Noise is another recording group whose titles have been largely
unavailable for a number of years, despite repeated searches both online
and in the local record stores.  This archival effect of the community
seems to serve as a cultural backup of the musical tradition.  Conversely,
the dependence on bell-curve distributions of popularity and specific
individuals within the community to provide access to these now obscure
artists renders the cultural archive quite vulnerable.

Napster can offer independent artists a unique opportunity for promotion if
the artists are able to maintain a proper media campaign.  One can
reference bands such as Filter, who went to concerts and handed out copious
numbers of demo tapes to the public.  In the case that a band or recording
artist desires to distribute content quickly and cheaply, all that is
needed is a high-speed connection and MP3's.  The dependence on bandwidth
that Napster requires is also currently its 'speed limit' as well.

The ability to transmit MP3 content on Napster is tightly linked to the
bandwidth of the two users.  For example, in my test run I chose to search
out individuals who had no less than a broadband cable connection, as
anything less seemed to produce download errors that made the process
untenable.  For the time being, it appears that the bandwidth problems
inherent to the mass transmission of MP3 data is also a sort of 'saving
grace' to any recording artist not desiring to have their data transmitted
through Napster.

Lastly in considering the caveats of Napster, there are the issues of
archival and quality of media.  Even though MP3 provides near-CD quality
sound there is still slight compression and dithering that makes it
unappealing to audiophiles. And, as mentioned before, the archival issues
of MP3 databases under the Napster models require the communication of two
users, and in many cases one or the other may not be present.  In this
case, the CD distribution model still remains highly attractive for
personal archives, sound quality and comprehensiveness for the enjoyment of
entire bodies of musical work.

NAPSTER: Conclusions and Recommendations.
Napster itself is not a piracy tool.  In the case of so many technologies,
Napster is a tool that allows users to share music data in an open data
community.  Much like the argument whether guns are a harmful technology in
themselves (but perhaps the metaphor is slightly skewed in this case) the
choice for copyright infringement is largely up to the Napster client.
>From my findings, the largest part of Napster data is 'ripped' CD data, and
it seems obvious to assume that the RIAA and other recording industry
groups will file 500,000 law suits against Napster clients.  Since Napster
is governed by a set of central servers, perhaps the solution would be to
install filters that would inhibit the display of signed artists.  However,
the implementation of such a database will be unwieldy, and numerous
smaller names would undoubtably fall to the wayside.

Napster may be a moot point, as further open source models that do not
share centralized serving models such as Gnutella and Freenet could create
decentralized communal structures, disallowing any sort of filtering
whatsoever.  At this point, the distributed society appears to be
challenging the material aspects of content culture. And, for content
marketers to wrestle with the 20th century paradigms of material culture in
a largely immaterial environment, they will  have to establish new systems
of distribution and control as long as tools with the ease of use of
Napster continue to exist.

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