Sonic Boom: Napster, Mp3, and the New Pioneers of Musicby John Alderman
Sonic Boom is a fascinating narrative of the controversy that's sending shock waves through the music industry. It reveals how even as the star-maker machinery of record companies remains in the hands of the old guard, innovators are finding ways to route around it. Part industry exposé and part music history, Sonic Boom presents a candid and entertaining
Sonic Boom is a fascinating narrative of the controversy that's sending shock waves through the music industry. It reveals how even as the star-maker machinery of record companies remains in the hands of the old guard, innovators are finding ways to route around it. Part industry exposé and part music history, Sonic Boom presents a candid and entertaining account of how digital compression technologies such as MP3 have brought out the best and worst in artists and consumers alike, and how the end result can be nothing less than a cultural and economic transformation. Peopled with a sensational cast of characters that includes rock stars, music moguls, teenagers, and Internet entrepreneurs, Sonic Boom exposes the recording industry's plight as a fascinating microcosm of the vast cultural, ethical, and legal issues that all industries face in the information age.
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Napster, MP3, and the New Pioneers of Music
By John Alderman Basic Books
Copyright © 2002 John Alderman
All right reserved.
Wave of Change
On the sunny afternoon of May 3, 2000, a mixed crowd of techies, music fans, and reporters began to assemble in front of an uninspiring beige building on a street corner in San Mateo, California. The city, one of several businesslike and nearly identical adjacent burgs, was set in the middle of the giant, remarkably expensive sprawl of asphalt, hills, and vegetation stretching from wind-chilled San Francisco in the north to the warmer Silicon Valley in the south. Gathering demonstrators, mostly white, middle class, and in their twenties or thirties, locked their cars outside of the well-tended apartment buildings that lined the street. Parking, the last-minute foil to many would-be demonstrations, was easily found, and the gathered forces seemed to be in good spirits, striking up amiable chats as they walked towards the excitement. A visitor might be struck with the reality of many California stereotypes playing themselves out. It was warm with a pleasant breeze, flowering plants and trees spread a soothing fragrance, and it was difficult to erase the feeling that this street was an interchangeable set; even the protest felt oddly readymade, like the anonymous blocks that passed for a downtown nearby. It wasone of those moments that felt like an intermission, when personalities and social forces came together in the flesh, outside of the more controlled and familiar media where most people had come to know them.
Though the atmosphere grew increasingly frenetic as one approached the Napster offices, the mood of the attendees was mostly one of curiosity livened with the anticipation of spectacle. A few police cars stopped mid-street without pulling over; other vehicles slowed down as lunching office workers rubbernecked, and occasionally someone honked and shook his fist out the window, or displayed another gesture of supportthough it was often unclear what was being supported. More than anything else, the air that day was full of mixed feelings. Metallica, one of the most respected and top-selling heavy metal bands of the 1980s and '90s, was about to deliver a challenge to the spirit of manifest destiny that often seemed ingrained in the technologically savvy. Drummer Lars Ulrich and the band's attorneys were about to drop off a list of over 300,000 names, taking Napster at its word that it would deny service to those who'd been spotted trading unauthorized songs.
The largest contingent of spectators that day were from the media, and by far the greatest animosity on display was from photographers jostling for good position, or reporters swarming around the few participants who actually started to say something. Five or so Napster supporters held up a long banner denouncing Metallica and the Recording Industry Association of America as "Master of Puppets," the title of one of the band's songs. Reps from other online music companies circled around the building in cars, slowing down to hand off their own branded freebies to an eager, antsy audience. Two young men who worked at a calendar publisher's office in the same building as Napster had taken opposite sides of the debate and explained their positions to the gathered reporters who attentively jotted down their every pronouncement; for them it seemed great to take a break from routine, nice to have their opinions taken seriously. One explained that sharing music, even for free, helped artists in the long run by making them famous; the other insisted that Metallica alone had the right to decide what happened to its music. A musician named Marc Brown was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "I have sympathy in the sense that if a ton of money was at stake for me, I might act like this also. But, objectively, I don't think that they deserve any sympathy."
Soon a large black SUV pulled up, and while the crowd moved closer, Lars Ulrich and Howard King, his burly lawyer, stepped out and pushed through to the building. An associate wheeled a trolley containing a brown cardboard box, filled with reams of paper, the list of 335,435 names. Surrounded by a crowd near the entrance to the building, Ulrich turned and read a speech that was a rehash of statements he'd been making through his PR agents, about how Metallica didn't approve of anyone trading Internet files of their music, and how Napster itself was responsible for theft. To the dismay of fame seekers, the midday glare diminished much of Ulrich's glamour, and having a mass of lawyers around him didn't look too rock and roll. He was only beginning what would become a personal crusade and was still a little fuzzy on some of the details. But, believing his band, and many others, were being wronged by the culture of trading that was so rapidly growing, he was determined to do his best to point out the injustice. The embodiment of rebel angst was having trouble shifting gears to righteous do-gooder, though. When asked about the consequences of his coming out as a spokesman for an industry perceived as being "the man," Ulrich switched quickly from wounded artist to his more familiar role as devil-may-care rebel. "Metallica doesn't give a fuck about anything. If it looks right for us we just go for it; we don't worry about the consequences."
Ulrich then turned and entered the building, his entourage and the cardboard box in tow, and went upstairs to an office described by other visitors as neatly segregated between young and old workers. He met with Napster representatives for about ten minutes. Ulrich's mood seemed to lighten somewhat by the time he came out. He said that the sides "agreed to disagree" and appeared relieved that "there are actual humans inside." The Metallica team sped away, and the remaining gawkers stood around aimlessly for a few quiet moments, as reporters rushed off to deliver their stories. Thus began Ulrich's publicity campaign, which would be followed by online chats on Yahoo, by an interview with TV's Charlie Rose, in counterpoint to Public Enemy's Chuck D, and by a speech before a congressional hearing. Ulrich would be cheered and maligned, a visible target for the industry and fans.
Napster spokespersons dismissed the Metallica provocation as a "publicity stunt," but agreed to suspend the service of the 335,435 users, who were identified by NetPD, a British consulting firm. "Of course," said a Napster attorney, Laurence Pulgram, "if the band would provide the names in computerized form, rather than in tens of thousands of pages of paper intended to create a photo op, that would expedite the process."
By all reports, Napster's founder, Shawn Fanning, was ruffled at being the focus of negative attention from one of his heroes. "I'm a huge Metallica fan and therefore really sorry that they're going in this direction," said Fanning, in a statement. "Napster respects the role of artists and is very interested in working with Metallica and the music industry to develop a workable model that is fair to everyone while unleashing the power of the Internet to build enthusiasm for music." From that moment forward, Fanning would appear frequently dressed in a Metallica T-shirt, most famously as a presenter at the MTV Music Awards, where Ulrich sat in the audience looking sick. It was difficult to say whether the Beavis and Butthead-like fashion statement was meant to be mocking or merely the honest expression of a fan laced with a little irony. Whatever the case, Ulrich made clear that, as far as he was concerned, being a Napster user and a Metallica fan were incompatible: on television and the Internet, he directly told fans who used Napster that the band didn't want their types.
Like Metallica, everyone in music and the Internet seemed busy going for whatever they thought to be in their immediate interest, and they didn't seem worried about the consequences. Heavy penalties loomed, like the threats of multimillion dollar entertainment business lawsuits. But the long arm of the law did little to stop the relentless boasts of computer whiz kids who believed that copyright would soon be rendered meaningless. And this was the public dialogue. On private mailing lists, the threats by either side were more graphic and more personal, including death threats, meant however jokingly. No one needed a reminder that the coming year would see more bile than ever.
How did the development of new technologies that supported a leisure time activity such as music reach this level of venom? And was all the confrontationand all the lawyersreally necessary? Probably not. But because both computer developers and music industry lawyers had a history of getting what they wanted, the legal force and the adolescent aggression seemed inevitable.
* * *
The sleepy, beachside city of Santa Cruz, California, is known for several things: a good university with a reputation for intellectual adventure; a population of New-Agey free spirits; and a natural environment that seems to infuse a mellow hedonism in most of its inhabitants. While very typically Californian, the city feels like the polar opposite of Los Angeles: little crime, no frantic social climbing, and certainly not much in the way of an entertainment industry. In 1993, at least in as much as any event on the Web can be said to occur in one place, Santa Cruz became the birthplace of the online music phenomenon.
The wave of change that would see fans turning to the Internet for their tunes, and away from the distribution networks built by large entertainment corporations, began, as is so often the case, with a couple of bright collegiate misfits. Though they did very little research, not much coding, and developed no new ways to compress music, what they did was build a Web site that offered a new way for people to get music and for musicians to reach an audience.
The buzzing of Web activity gave the West Coast a portentous feeling that year. Nationally, the time was ripe for invention. While the Reagan era sometimes felt like a long backward glance, Bill Clinton and Al Gore had just begun an administration that at the very least embraced an optimistic, forward-looking vocabulary, spotlighting initiatives that pushed the new "information superhighway." In the business world, offices that had never before even needed calculators were suddenly acquiring computers that sprawled over desktops to become the focus of a worker's attention. News of the Internet was beginning to pique the interest of the public and the media. Wired magazine had launched its first issue, including an article about libraries replacing their books with digitized copies, an idea with obvious overlap in other media. The story wondered, "if someday in the future anybody can get an electronic copy of any book from a library free of charge, why should anyone ever set foot in a bookstore again?" The focus on print was predictable; text was much easier to send over low bandwidth, and the Net was built largely around words. Meanwhile, those with an interest in music were wondering what the Internet could do for them. About the same time Wired was launched, a pair of University of California Santa Cruz students hatched a plan to answer that question.
The pair doing the hatching were Jeff Patterson and Rob Lord, two friends who shared a love for music, as well as a distaste for the bland offerings of mainstream record labels. Patterson was a lanky, long-haired blond; Lord, olive-skinned and often seen wearing an amused, knowing smile. Before going away to school, Lord had been manager of a record store in his hometown of Valencia, California. Being the final link in the long chain of the music business was an experience that shaped his feeling towards the establishment. The narrow range of available product and the heavy-handed marketing of the industry put him off. His own preferences leaned towards college radio staples like the anguished cries of Joy Division or the lush and dreamy washes of sound made by Galaxy 500, as well as music from the burgeoning rave scenedistant cries from the mass-market records he usually sold.
"I was the stereotypical music store employee," explained Lord, "saying things like 'Barbra Streisandyou can't listen to her, and you can't kill her ... Beep.' Like any discerning music fan, you ended up selling all of this music that you wished people wouldn't buy. I kept thinking to myself that if only there were a better way of getting better music distribution."
Patterson was equally frustrated with the narrow range of musical choices readily available and was miffed by the few options open to musicians wanting to expose their works to a wider audience. He had firsthand experience in that regard and was hoping there might be a way for his band, The Ugly Mugs, to expose its musicsongs with names like "Cold Turd on a Paper Plate"to people who would appreciate it. Music like his wouldn't be released by Warner or BMG, but would probably appeal to a larger audience than Santa Cruz slackers, if only the songs could get out there.
At school, Lord studied information theory and digital signal processing, fortuitously under the tutelage of David Huffman, whose Huffman encoding algorithm was popularly in use (it was, as it happened, a main component of the MP3 protocols). Lord also worked part-time as the computer consultant to the UC art department. His encounter with the newly developing Web was deeply affecting and he became gripped with a fervor to promulgate Web browsers to anyone within reach. Mosaic was the most popular browser available at the time. Freshly released by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, it featured a graphic user interface that made using it easy. Lord diligently installed copies of Mosaic on all of the department's computers. The idea of a universal interface to data, combined with new audio compression and player technologies he was learning about under Huffman, sparked an epiphany in Lord, and he and Patterson began to brainstorm ideas about how to combine the two. A decent student, Lord was nonetheless not thrilled with school; he claims he wasn't having enough fun and was hoping to find something that might combine his two passions: music and technology. That something would materialize one day as Lord trolled the Internet, searching for interesting ways to compress sound files (compressing the data in a music file was necessary to send it manageably over the Internet). He discovered the Xing Player, a piece of software that played musical files compressed using the MP2 algorithm. A quick download and a listen was all it took to hook Lord, and his life took a quick, profound turn. He became a cheerleader, what could even be called an evangelist, for online music. His e-mail signature line read "Free or Shareware Music, Internet Distribution of Music Will Change All," with a link pointing everyone towards the Xing Player. Friends and acquaintances followed his suggestion, and years before Napster hit, Lord became a key figure in a clique that seemed to instinctively understand the power that Internet distribution held for music.
With ambitions to bring together as much music-related content as he could get his hands on, Lord opened an account at the popular public server Sunsite, which let him store his Web site for anyone to download. From there, inspired by revolutionary dreams and technological fervor, Lord and Patterson took the leap to launch one of the Web's first start-up companies. Internet Underground Music Archive, or IUMA, was set up in a small office above a Santa Cruz gay bar. The Web start-up pattern was in full effect from day one: Lord and Patterson slept under their desks, and paid the wages of the few acting school dropouts they'd managed to recruit as employees by picking up a weekly burrito tab.
At first, IUMA was really two sites in one, one on the Web, which required greater computing power than many had in that day, and one that used "File Transfer Protocol" or FTP. The sites gave bands a place to tell the world about themselves and also to offer music for download. Much of the music IUMA hosted was initially sent in on cassette tape, leaving the encoding to the staff, for which the company charged a small fee. Anyone could pay $240 a year and post one song and band photos and offer merchandise for sale. It was a learning experience for all involved. It gave Lord, among other things, a lesson in the power of PR. Following the other now-familiar Web start-up pattern, the media was quick to pick up on IUMA's high-tech buzz, and the newly minted executive quickly learned to fan the fires of publicity with revolutionary rhetoric.
"This is going to kill the music industry," Lord proclaimed to the San Jose Mercury News in 1993. From the pages of the Silicon Valley daily newspaper, it was a quick jump to CNN and then the cover of Billboard. The music industry had a new and boisterous, if somewhat ill-defined and as yet naive, foil. Like a clever youngster testing limits, Lord and IUMA helped point the Internet generation at a new target against which it could gauge its growing strength. The music industry was a dinosaur that didn't understand the promise of the Net and had stifled its own creativity through the pursuit of corporate profits. This unsteady new establishment wanted to take over.
IUMA promised to be the place where less overtly commercial bands could create Web pages and reach more diverse audiences, despite the high-tech threshold for Internet use. In 1993, less than 3 percent of American classrooms were connected to the Net, compared to more than half in 2000. Even when traffic was minimal, music clips were being downloaded from as far away as Russiaan appealing prospect to bands unaccustomed to being heard outside their hometowns. Remember, at the time it was novel to make human contact of any kind using your computer; to have distant foreigners visit your Web site and listen to music you had just kicked out seemed very futuristic indeed. As the country, and the stock market, became obsessed with Internet technology, the pace picked up, and the breadth and speed of Internet delivery accelerated. In a 1994 issue of early cyber-culture magazine Mondo 2000, avant-garde musician Kenneth Newby interviewed Lord and Patterson and described IUMA as a "kind of digital club where the bands play for free, there's no cover charge, and the owners are just happy that you came."
This kind of description echoed popular expectations of the Web in general, raising a question that would haunt nearly everyone who had some creative, digitized product that they hoped to sell on the Web: How did the Internet develop into a giant playground where everyone expected things to be free? Once a piece of work was digitized, Web users seemed to instinctively feel that it was fair game for anyone who wanted to download it.
The recording industry seemed unconcerned with IUMA, and if it noticed at all, it was to take advantage of IUMA's service, on a very small scale. The small, progressive, Warner-affiliated label 4AD Records, for example, had Web pages created for its bands. Other than that, music industry insiders simply made a note to have a talk with IUMA's founders, to affirm that they were all interested in doing cool stuff.
As Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig has put it, the code from which the Net is built is the law. Many of the expectations about online music are the legacy of builders themselves, and many beliefs are based on the structure of the networks. Those who built the Web, though a very diverse bunch, tended to share many similar goals. The Internet, of course, arose from the bowels of the Cold War infrastructure of military and education. It was a way of distributing research and military data using computer networks that spurted "packets" of information across multiple lines to be later reassembled into their original form at the final destination. The system, as developed at the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), promised a quick, if somewhat quirky method of communication that included not only the sharing of programs and data over great distance, but also radio messaging that would not break down due to jamming or geography.
For a research-oriented group, the ability to share data from around the country and around the world was the main interest. The likelihood of commercial rights holders asserting their claims was not much of a concern; in fact all commercial activity was officially off-limits on the Net until 1991. Commercial interest wasn't great anyway until the World Wide Web transformed the rather arcane communication tools of the Net into lively multimedia portals, ready to open on command on the screens of the workforce, student body, and swelling ranks of home users who were just getting comfortable with their PCs.
Many of those involved in the creation of the Web had lofty, socially ambitious goals that involved making it as easy as possible to share information, and many expected to foster a leap in human knowledge and culture that could usher in another Renaissance. "The Web," Tim Berners-Lee wrote, "was designed as an instrument to prevent misunderstandings." The system that he designed encouraged the free spread of what would later be called "content," and he was not alone in feeling inspired by beliefs that were strongly optimistic, even verging on utopian.
Excerpted from Sonic Boom by John Alderman Copyright © 2002 by John Alderman. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
John Alderman has worked in the trenches of the on-line revolution since the launch of HotWired, the world's first commercial Web site. As the culture editor for Wired News, Alderman began covering the explosion of on-line music just as the MP3 phenomenon gathered steam. He has written for Wired, Details, Salon, I.D., and Mondo 2000, and is a frequent speaker on the subject of new media.
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