Revisions to Article
Many of us have a strong bond with music. For me, music is my muse, my motivator, my habit, my vice, my virtue, and my love. It has been my constant companion. I remember carrying around a portable radio as a kid, calling in to request songs that had recently titillated my emotions. Sometimes, however, I didn’t catch the name or artist of songs that had me jumping around my room. Such was the case with my brief encounter with the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds on WINK 104.1 FM at the age of eight. Even at that young age, the lyrics spoke to me and the rhythm intrigued me. Change is an ever present motif in a child’s life, so The Byrds’ expression of time and its constant motion really comforted me, especially since my family was moving within a year. I never heard it again until years and years later, because the radio failed to introduce the song. I bought tapes and CDs as a child, but I had nobody to introduce me to music, nobody to guide me. The radio was my only source of exploring unfamiliar tunes, but half the time stations failed to inform their listeners about the music they played. Eventually, a new revolutionary phenomenon overtook these musical mediums in my life and sent me down a long journey of self discovery, addiction, and appreciation. At the dawn of the digital age, I discovered file sharing and through it I discovered myself.
I first witnessed file sharing after receiving a frantic call from my best friend and neighbor, Hank, one cool spring afternoon during middle school. I headed over to his house and was directed into the computer room, which was flooded with the afternoon sunlight. I walked over to Hank with his brown hair glistening under the window, while he slouched in a leather arm chair, glued to the computer screen, with a zombie like stare. I looked at the screen and found a free music network named Napster with a logo bearing a white cat wearing head phones. Hank excitedly explained how simple it was to download songs, any songs, through this amazing new network. Isn’t it illegal? I wondered, but Hank could care less having just downloaded the entire soundtrack of “Run Lola Run.”
I asked how it worked, so he typed “Madonna” into a search bar and hit enter. In seconds, “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl” popped up on the screen, followed by multiple other songs by Madonna and several duplicates of nearly everything. He clicked on three different “Like a Virgin”s and moved over to another screen where we watched as the MP3s connected, waited, and downloaded. Finally, one of the choices reached 100%. Hank deleted all the duplicates and moved to another screen, “the library,” where all his other downloaded songs were located. He doubled clicked “Like a Virgin” and soon I heard Madonna’s saintly song drifting through his speakers. That’s amazing. In the time it took for the sex symbol’s best hits to travel through the matrix, I no longer cared about the ethics of this new technology anymore…I wanted it. I ran home and downloaded Napster for free through the Internet and, with the help of blank CDs, all my downloaded MP3’s were being transferred to a more practical medium within minutes.
Napster, the spark that ignited a digital revolution in music, was created in 1999 by a Northeastern University student named Shawn Fanning, in an effort to improve the file swapping he observed in Internet Relay Chats, a system of live chats on the internet with multiple participants (Kusek 100). The result was a widely used file sharing system through which music-philes, like Hank and I, transferred music files to and from Napster’s central server to their network computers. This free exchange of large amounts of music provoked varying reactions from the music community. Typically the advertisers, publishers, and labels profiting from CD sales were disgruntled by this growing community of file sharers. Some top-selling artists, such as Britney Spears and Eminem, disapproved of all illegal file sharing, while other artists in the music community did not feel threatened by this new technology (Digital Age 2). Some even directly benefited from it, such as fledgling artists who typically enjoyed the ability to distribute their music through file sharing to increase awareness of their songs and create a fan base. Hot new artists, such as Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, Sufjan Stevens, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah all have this grassroots community to thank for their success (McBride 1). File sharers everywhere began to view such file sharing as a harmless way to discover music.
The file sharing medium allowed me to dabble in all kinds of genres. Influenced by high school friends, I downloaded punk rock, indie, and emo bands. These are what I call the ‘cut yourself and kill yourself’ genres of music. Needless to say, I ultimately learned there was a limit to my eclectic taste. I managed one CD of enjoyable tunes from each of these genres before moving on. I had no problem listening to tons of bands over the internet who would never receive a dime from me; because, in actuality, without file sharing, I would have never even considered buying any CD from these unfamiliar genres. In that respect, file sharing allowed me to explore, discover, and experiment with music. Unlike prior methods of musical exploration, my digital quest allowed me to efficiently and effectively understand my own musical taste. I went through musical phases that would have been completely foreign to me had it not been for this technology. I entered a classical music stage in junior year, downloading Tchaikovsky and Mozart. During senior year, I entered a jam band phase, downloading Phish, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. Most recently, I have journeyed into my sixties phase to experience what Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison produced amidst the purple haze before passing on.
Mark Katz demonstrates this unending world of genres in his book Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, which explores the effects of modern musical technology on modern music. Katz searched on a file-sharing network for two obscure genres: Swedish funk and Vietnamese hardcore rap. He was quickly presented with the “Electric Boys, a Stockholm quartet formed in 1988… [and] their album Funk-O-Metal Carpet Ride,” as well as the “California-based Vietnamese group inexplicably known as Thai” (166). These somewhat silly genres prove the versatility contained within file-sharing networks, compared to the limited shelves in CD stores and the narrow assortment within radio stations. Napster was full of unfamiliar territory for me to explore.
Hank and I readily accepted our new roles as determined explorers of this new and strange world. We felt as if we were going where no man had gone before: deep into the darkest corners of the overgrown matrix. . I thrived on what I found, what I received, what I heard, and what I craved. Hank and I were swapping burned CDs as if our life depended on it. My old purchased music became lost amidst a heap of colorful unmarked CDs.
Napster had been integrated into my life.
It was a source of creativity, discovery, and joy. My lust for music was insatiable once it became so readily available. Our music libraries grew considerably, hindered only by an occasional slow network connection or errors during downloading. Music began to have a powerful effect on me. It could shift my mood, empathize with my feelings, or enhance my emotion. If I was sad I could play the fun cheerful dance songs by Junior Senior and become happier. If I was angry, I could slip in Nirvana and find a similar frustration in Kurt Cobain’s scratchy grunge songs. And, if I was calm, I could drift into a transcendental stupor with the whispering melodies and passive murmur of an Air song. I was a music junkie, relying on mp3s to get through my day. I injected music to regulate my emotions and keep me sane. Napster was my drug, and little did I know, but I was about to be cut off.
Hank and I experienced the decline of Napster almost as unexpectedly as its ascent. Napster’s fast growing exchange of free copyrighted music threatened the recording industry’s previously unchecked ability to dominate format changes and availability of merchandise in the music world. So, led by the Recording Industry Association of America (or RIAA), major recording companies, such as Universal, Sony BMG, Warner, and EMI, joined forces to sue Napster out of business (Kusek 5). By 2001, a high profile legal battle waged by the RIAA shutdown Napster, as it was, forever.
Because Napster had sparked so much in my life, I felt defeated personally. Napster was my introduction to the extent of human creativity and feeling. I never appreciated the imagination and talent of individual artists until I was exposed to so many. I recognized their experiences and often lived through their music. However, like any other addiction, when you quite one, you often start another.
I wasted no time replacing Napster with another network called Limewire, while Hank chose Ares. At this point, it wasn’t hard to replace Napster, because a new wave of peer-to-peer networks, also known as P2P networks, developed, which included Limewire and Ares. The newer P2P networks provided a base for computers to transfer files directly from one computer to another, rather than using central servers or directories, which Napster had employed. Limewire didn’t look as cool as Napster, but it operated in the same manner. Changing networks didn’t slow down my file sharing habit in the least.