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[whitespace] Shawn Fanning
Photograph by Thomas Engstrom, Los Angeles

Napster Time: In January of last year, Shawn Fanning, now 19, nailed down the original Napster application in between his freshman classes at Northeastern University.

Rocking in the Free World

Stick this in your ear

By Jessica L'esperance

FREE MUSIC for free people. This is the default rallying cry for our upstart generation that has grown to expect instantaneous access to limitless information. What's the crazy part? We are getting exactly what we're looking for. The movement away from traditional means of music distribution has instigated what journalists and prognosticators like to call a "revolution" in how we think about and listen to music.

But in truth, the fate of the revolution lies in the hands of all the people behind the front lines. Away from the eyes of controversy are other music sites that are "playing clean" and staying out of trouble. This is the movement that reflects the future of free music for the people.

Here we are again, talking over the hottest topic of the hour: MP3s. If this was Pee-Wee's playhouse, we'd be yelling and screaming right now. What has us all abuzz? Is it that there's a lot of money to be made and lost? Is it that the new face of the music industry as we know it is being collagen-injected? Could it be that we now have access to all the music we could ever want at the click of a mouse?

Truth is, something much deeper than technological stage-fright runs through us all. While lawyers duke it out in court, artists sue over copyright infringements and music lovers across the land are united in a temporary euphoria of free music, there are others, underexposed by mainstream media, who are also seriously shaping the I-just-hit-puberty face of digital music distribution.

Technology now exists and is widely circulated that allows people, with a little help from their computers, to trade files without a disk, without a conversation--just a click--and voilà. This in itself is not a new concept, or even a particularly threatening one. Or at least it didn't use to be.


MP3 STANDS FOR Motion Picture Experts Group Audio Layer 3. In English we say that MP3s are simply well-compressed sound files. Typically, audio files are large; the genius of and subsequent craze over MP3s is because of their ability to substantially condense files without compromising quality. Since 1996 MP3 has been readily available and free over the Internet. Over the past two years the popularity has grown to the point that "MP3" now replaces "sex" as the search term most often entered on routine search engines. That's huge.

How do you jump onto the virtual bandwagon? Get a player and you're in business. Winamp is a great player for PCs--it's easy to use and does exactly what it should. Players like Winamp can play single songs, stream audio, and even save compilations of your favorite songs in the annals of cyberspace.

Now it's time to find that music that's been running though your head. But before starting, take note that there is a lot of free music available and a lot of not-free music also available. Much of the free music is pirated, thereby making it illegal. Much of the music for sale will run anywhere from 25 cents to $1.50, with the cost covering the licensing fees. But there are also lots of other alternatives out there.

Got that Ernie and Bert tune "Rubber Ducky?" Napster does. Napster, developed in 1999 by college student Shawn Fanning, has become a cause for solidarity amongst music fans who can't get enough of its seemingly endless treasury of music files. Napster is an application that basically eliminates the time and energy spent searching for MP3s. It's a simple tool: download music in MP3 format from one of up to 10,000 code-named users' hard drives. Anybody who's logged on to the network--from your tweeky punkrock cousin to your jazzophile boss--has access to everyone else's digital music libraries. No more broken links, no more slow downloads, and (thank god) no more busy, confusing FTP sites.

We are a generation of people who have always copied music, even though mix tapes are essentially illegal. In 1983 Betamax faced a lawsuit similar to the one Napster is dealing with right now. Betamax's "innovative" video copying technology allegedly infringed upon the pre-existing copyrights held on rental videos. The courts ruled that since the technology was made for legal use, it could not be suppressed. A funny thing about technology--it always has a way of making itself useful. While we haven't heard much from Betamax since the mid-'80s, their court battle set a precedent for copyright law and emerging technologies.

Or so it seemed until late April of this year, when the heavy hand of the law came down on My.MP3.com, a service offered by MP3.com. My MP3 users were able to upload and remotely store MP3s on the site's server. This jukebox service allowed users to download their own tracks as well as those uploaded by others, and even log into accounts with other people's collections. The transfer, i.e. the ability to download individual tracks uploaded by another my.mp3.com user, is the violation in question. The courts found this an infringement of the copyright agreement, since people could obtain and transfer individual tracks for free.

The can is open and the worms are out. Napster and others like it--Gnutella, MP123, and MyPlay--may be shut down, but the movement has begun. Will Napster be granted refuge in the courts? If we gauge by the ruling in the RIAA v. MP3.com suit, then the future of Napster looks grim. The courts ruled in favor of the RIAA, and now MP3.com is forced to play by the rules and license music through the big five record companies.

Why are the record companies creating an us-against-them dynamic? They only stand to benefit by attracting the avid fans who still buy the CDs because they love the bands that produce them. Apparently that's not the way the record company execs see it--and the battle rages on.

Power to the People

AARON NEWTON, the 24-year-old founder of Epitonic.com, has one intention in mind: to turn you on to the music that he thinks rocks the house. Epitonic is a destination site featuring downloadable electronica, hip-hop and indie music from mostly underground and independent record labels. Every track is accompanied by a description and an artist bio, along with in-depth info about emerging genres and the record labels that foster them. Essentially, Epitonic acts a meta-label--filtering and promoting the artists they like while developing constructive relationships with them and their record companies. Emphasizing the roots behind what they play, Epitonic believes that music is a reflection of the community that created it. To a fan, understanding the history and the context of where your favorite music came from is the difference between a mediocre trip through another blasé music storehouse and a great experience that brings you back for another round.

Sugarmegs.org is the ultimate resource for any fan of live improvised music. It's home to a massive archive of bootlegged MP3s and streamed audio from such renowned rockers as the Grateful Dead, Phish, Medeski Martin and Wood, Bob Marley, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix and Sector 9. Following in the tradition of communal living inspired over some 35 years by the Dead's caravan of traveling families, Sugarmegs.org has no central organization. Instead, it stands as a network of sites offering recordings of live shows from the artists who encourage grass-roots distribution of their music. Believe it or not, some bands like to see their fans interacting with each other by trading tapes and collecting shows. The Dead originally fostered this form of community and interaction by allowing amateur tapers to record their concerts.

Other sites devoted to jambands and sound files are Andy Gadiel's home page (http://www.gadiel.com/), Phishingpole.com, and Jambase.com. These sites deliver hundreds of live shows, along with opportunities to chat, trade music, and exchange trivia. The bands that populate these online communities are committed to spreading music to the fans, knowing that a strong fan base is what makes a band successful. Flowing seamlessly through all these sites is the philosophy of family, community and grass-roots support, exemplified by musicians and fans alike.

The Betalounge offers streaming audio sets of DJs, aired live once a week for the Network Syndicate in San Francisco. Their mission is to share and catalog the music they love by creating a musical archive that can then be accessed free of charge throughout the world. When DJs come through San Francisco, some of them stop in at the Network Syndicate and throw down. The DJs in essence are adding their art to an encyclopedia of electronic music that exists to enlighten the Betalounge's 150,000-plus listeners each week.

Hip-hop and early DJ music were founded on the principle of reworking recorded music that was otherwise obsolete. Taking a vinyl record and transforming it into an instrument is guerilla innovation at its best. Platform.net is the ultimate resource for the hungry hip-hop head; it's heavily content-driven, offering album reviews, news on artists, and stories of interest to the urban community. Say you want to hear a track off the new Common album. Head to Platform.net, find the song, and read about the album, the track, and the performer. Platform also features live DJs streaming audio straight to your headphones. More than a generic MP3 warehouse, Platform allows users to dig deep into the reality behind the music. Most of the content is a bit East Coast-centric, but we'll let that slide for now.

Radio streaming sites like Spinner.
com (SF), Pseudo.com in New York City, and Skinny.com are keeping their hands clean of controversy by licensing their music and making it available only as a complete package. The broadcast must follow the practices outlined in the Digital Millennium Communications Act (DMCA) of 1998, much like traditional radio--no broadcast can contain more than three songs from one album, and often there is an air-time minimum. Users select music track by track from each site's catalog and then listen to the selection in a continuous stream. These legit sites comply with the DMCA regulations by not offering the opportunity to download individual tracks or by skipping songs within the broadcast. Although the traditional limitations of radio still restrict total interactivity, streaming may be the new face of legal free music.

Face the Music

THE RECORD INDUSTRY is likely facing the same downsizing that many other industries have faced due to technological advances. It is easier and more cost-effective to use technology--in this case digital distribution--instead of traditional models. It's also how we measure progress as a society. While this shift from outdated distribution methods to a new platform will not be easy for the industry to stomach, the word on the street is that it's about time.

Artists will have more control over their art. It will actually be more financially feasible (and realistic) to make, distribute, promote and sell music without the connections and money normally provided by the large labels. This shift of power and control opens the door for artists to own their own means of production, which means no more selling out to the record company just to get a piece of the action. While the artists take more work onto their plates, the payoff is far greater.

With the market opening and allowing so many new services to enter the arena, ultimately the consumer is the big winner. As more music is distributed via digital media, the options for consumers blow through the roof. Music is easier to get, especially from the independent and low-distribution labels.

Something's got to give. Either the record labels will see the benefits of digital distribution and make a profitable business incorporating the technological capabilities, or they can step aside and let the future pass on by. It really is that simple.

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From the June 29-July 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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