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 the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds, which I heard on WINK 104.1 FM, Harrisburg’s best music mix, at the age of eight. Since the radio failed to introduce the song, I had no idea who played the simple guitar chords that had entranced my mind. The repetitive but haunting chorus lyrics spoke to me as a child: “To everything (turn, turn, turn)/ There is a season (turn, turn, turn)/ And a time for every purpose, under heaven.” 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 treasured the nearly four minutes of song, but at the time I felt I had no means to relive the experience, so it wasn’t until years later that I heard the song again. Sure, I bought tapes and CDs as a child, but I had nobody to introduce me to music, nobody to guide me. The unpredictable radio announcements of upcoming songs were my only source of exploring unfamiliar tunes. Eventually, though, a new revolutionary phenomenon overtook my previous musical mediums 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 one cool spring afternoon from my best friend and neighbor, Hank. 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 at all (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 their habit 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 a sixties phase to experience what Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison created 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. In the book, Katz searched on a file-sharing network for two obscure genres: Swedish funk and Vietnamese hardcore rap. He is 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 the musical gems unearthed in the vast matrix of song. Hank and I swapped 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. Music was my drug, and little did I know, but my dealer was about to be busted.
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 was constantly astounded by the new sounds and melodies I failed to hear before Napster. However, there are plenty of other dealers in the world, so I simply moved on.
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.
After a brief period of blissful music sharing and uninhibited mp3 indulgence, tragedy struck once more. I began to hear about lawsuits against random file sharers. I took my own music library off the network, so nobody would download my music, but I could still download from other people on the network. Essentially, I wasn’t sharing anymore, just taking. I later discovered that these lawsuits were a product of a court case between the RIAA and Grokster, a P2P service. The RIAA was trying to shutdown the new P2P services the way it destroyed Napster. However, when the RIAA took Grokster to court, the judge ruled that there are, in fact, legitimate applications for these new P2P networks due to the lack of a central server (Adegoke 1). This ruling ended the RIAA’s opportunity to fight file-sharing by going directly to the source, which unfortunately caused them to start filing lawsuits against individual network users.
Before the recording industry leaders implemented these individual lawsuits, the music industry was experiencing a severe downturn, “slashing rosters and laying off thousands of employees” (Knopper 3). As one major-label source put it, “‘It’s one thing when you’re looking from the outside and saying how stupid this is -- but it’s another thing when half your company gets laid off’” (Knopper 4). Their financial set backs along with their failure to shutdown Grokster settled the matter of whether to begin suing file sharers. Their targets were so-called “supernodes” or “significant uploaders of pirated music” (Adrianson 2). Supernodes have generally downloaded more than 100 songs, but the RIAA refuses to reveal any other criteria for choosing file sharers (Knopper 2). The lawsuits “demand up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages – and even the few defendants who can afford to pay are more inclined to settle for $3,200 to $4,000 than fight a costly court battle against music-industry lawyers” (Knopper 2). Often times this sum of money severely impacts the file sharers financial stability.
Despite the severity of the lawsuits, many, including those sued by the RIAA, believe that this method of dissuasion is ineffective. Charli Johnson, “a twenty-one-year-old student in Winfield Kansas, who settled for about $3,000 last summer,” stated “‘Personally, I don’t think it’s going to stop anyone from downloading. All my friends know I got sued and how much I got sued for – and they’re still downloading music’” (Knopper 3). Even the file sharing statistics according to BigChampagne, among other researchers, do not support the RIAA’s method. BigChampagne tracks file-sharing trends and compiles the most widely accepted file-sharing data for a variety of uses, including for the record companies’ marketing purposes. According to a recent BigChampagne study, “the lawsuits have failed to stop, or even slow, illegal file-sharing. An estimated 8.6 million Americans were trading copyrighted songs at any given time in April 2005 – up 100 percent from 4.3 million in September 2003, when the suits began” (Knopper 3). Such trends suggest that the RIAA’s efforts are fueling rebellion rather than squelching it.
Not even all the companies involved with the music industry see the lawsuits as productive. In 2005, Terry McBride, the CEO of a Vancouver-based record label and management company called Nettwerk Music Group, decided to pay the legal bills of an RIAA lawsuit victim and father of four, David Greubel. McBride explained that “the passionate message of music is in the magic of the song. The more it is consumed, the more it nourishes. Music is ubiquitous; it is a utility like water…We need to stop treating music like a product that needs to be controlled” (McBride 1). McBride adds to evidence building up against RIAA’s campaign by pointing out that “this litigation is forcing the music fans to use technologies that are not measurable or traceable...So, in fact, we are not deterring file sharing, just deterring our chances of monetizing it” (McBride 1). McBride’s observations reveal the importance of file sharers as a new united market to be embraced not forced underground.
I laid low for a while, but I couldn’t shake my dependency on music. I took some necessary precautions, but like many other file sharers, I didn’t know what to look out for. The RIAA lawsuit victims seemed excessively random. One day they would choose a retired grandmother to be sued, while the next day a mother of a 12-year old girl would pay up. Whether or not any of these actions were justified by declining record sales was anybody’s guess.
In response to the growing number of seemingly ineffective lawsuits, several other causes for the decline in record sales were suggested. The Oberholzer-Strumpf study, which criticized the correlation between declining CDs sales and file sharing, listed several alternative causes for these numbers including: “poor macroeconomic conditions, a reduced number of album releases, growing competition from other forms of entertainment, a reduction in music variety due to radio consolidation, the cost of independent promoter fees to gain airplay, and possibly a consumer backlash against record industry tactics” (Holland 1). Former Sony Music Executive, Steve Grodon, blames the Internet Service Providers and the manufactures of computers, blank optical disks, CD burners, and MP3 players,” all of which are “facilitating unauthorized file sharing and CD burning” (Paying for Music). Terry McBride listed four reasons for the decline of CD sales: “a) stiff competition for the entertainment dollar from formats like videogames and movies…b) the replacement cycle is over -- digital music does not scratch or wear out like past formats; c) one now has the ability to purchase and listen only to the great songs without filler; and d) mass merchant retailers today carry only the current hits, with little to no catalog” (McBride 1). Nevertheless, the recording industry supporters maintain that the upholding of copyright laws ensures that the artists and producers continue to make a profit, which essentially preserves the music market.
The RIAA and the music industry are not the only ones ignoring these other possibilities by focusing on file sharing. The most recent addition to the anti-file sharing artists are the very creators of viral marketing themselves, The Grateful Dead. The Dead, long know for allowing, even encouraging, fans to record concerts have requested that a large online library called archive.org block access to over a thousand Grateful Dead concert downloads. The ticket sales from concerts in their hay day allowed the Dead to be passive about their fan’s exchange of free music; but now, since the Dead can only tour sporadically, Grateful Dead Productions must rely on CD and merchandise sales (Simon 72-3). According to Richard Simon, writer for Relix magazine, “the spirit of free-flowing information that they helped engender may be limiting their ability to make music available on their own terms. At the same time, changing the rules of the game some 40 years on could well alienate the very fans they need to keep their legacy alive” (73).
There is so much paradox and counterintuitive actions surrounding the file sharing business that one must wonder, Isn’t there a better way? One option is the “technical fix,” which means that a technical solution will be designed to avoid unauthorized copying. One technical fix is the Digital Rights Management option, which suggests placing “a special code into digitized media that prevents copying” (Adrianson 4). However, if knowledgeable pirates overcame the protective codes, all digital media players would have to be fixed to play only media with a DRM code. Therefore, these technological fixes may restrict innovation and place boundaries much more than the RIAA’s current policy.
One of the current options in effect is to expand and exploit the online music market by developing legal downloading networks like Apple iTunes, Emusic.com, and Listen.com, which typically offer songs for 99 cents each. The RIAA states that the simultaneous development of this legal market and the abundance of lawsuits was no accident. Jonathan Lamy, a spokesperson for the RIAA, explained, “‘The idea is to bring [illegal file-sharing] down to a level of control where legitimate services can get a foothold in the marketplace and eventually flourish’” (Adrianson 6). Their new hold on the market may already be displaying growing power over consumers and competition. National Public Radio announced that the U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating anti-competitive practices like price-fixing within online music networks for four global music companies (Marketplace Report). The most successful legal downloading site, Apple iTunes, is using their success to endorse their other products, which gives them an “unprecedented amount of control over the record business and the technology business.” There could be a “tying violation,” applied to Apples’ music sales being linked to Apple technology. A smaller feud is occurring between Apple’s CEO and the music industry about Apple’s refusal to force customers to pay more for hit songs than “B-side songs” (Marketplace Report). These incidents reflect the growing competition and corruption within this new market.
Another option would be to adopt a blanket license system, which “could authorize copyrighted material to be traded on the networks while providing compensation for the artists and the record labels,” much like the radio licensing system (Adianson, 5). Some P2P networks, such as Grokster, are pushing for this solution. In an interview on NPR, Steve Gordon the former Sony Music executive and current music attorney, explained the advantages of one such blanket license system called the statutory license law trying to be passed through Congress: “Record companies limit the release of millions of older songs, which puts the record company at a severe disadvantage with the unauthorized services that can allow anything…the statutory license triumphs this problem” by permitting the use of all copyright material in exchange for a predetermined payment to the copyright owner (Paying for Music). In addition to this, the “fees would be paid by those directly profiting from file sharing -- that is, the makers of CD burners, including computer manufacturers, and the ISPs (Internet Service Providers), whose subscribers already pay in part for access to such services as Kazaa” (Gordon 1). The major drawbacks to this option reside in individual artist contracts and their personal feelings. Some artist contracts prohibit record companies to put the artist’s music online. Many major artists are simply reluctant to put their music online out of fear of inadequate compensation (Gordon 2). The recording industry must look more closely into these alternatives, because “without a compromise,” Steve Gordon warns, “everyone will loose” (3).
During my second year in college, around the time NPR interviewed Steve Gordon, I received two E-mails from the CIO and Director of ITS at my small liberal arts college located just north of Richmond, VA. This e-mail detailed incidents of file sharing law suits on campus, including pending lawsuits against my fellow students, which brought the Recording Industry’s message close to home. By this time, I was nearing the end of my self-exploration through online networks, because my growing knowledge of technology and music drove me to find even more productive methods of discovery. I began to largely use legal means of obtaining and exploring new music. I was finding new bands through audioscrobbler, which recorded what music I played and suggested what else I might enjoy. I had a single, free, and legal library under iTunes, instead of my previous scattered music files and misplaced CDs. I transferred literally about sixteen days worth of music onto my computer through my brother and friends. I also started purchasing CDs again. I started all of this after looking over the last sentence of the RMC e-mail: “The RIAA is obviously taking a closer look this year so everybody needs to be aware of their chances of being tagged for music copyright infringement violation” (Copler 1)! I considered the $3,000 fine in relation to my life and decided to take a break from my file sharing days. If I hadn’t been so well stocked with music (5,421 songs on my iTunes…not to mention my CD collection), I would have let the RIAA’s threats drift past my ears yet again, like millions of other Americans.
Bound emotionally and psychologically to whatever drifts past my ears, I am a product of the digital revolution of music. Napster and the networks it generated had opened my mind to new sounds, created an infinite collection of music to nourish my growing passion, and hooked me on an addictive form of human expression that will undoubtedly stay with me for the rest of my life. For better or worse, they nurtured a rabid music appreciator. Even though I now buy more CDs then ever, I don’t think the RIAA had much to do with it. I believe that the act of file sharing allowed me to better understand my own musical taste, which, in the end, made buying music more practical. Whatever the future of file-sharing networks, the digital age has left its mark on the music industry. The data surrounding CD sales amidst file sharing appears to be surrounded by hidden prejudices. However, even among this confusion one can see file sharing is not only sticking around, but growing and developing. It is up to the music industry to realize this widely agreed upon statement and change with the times.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, Roman writer of Fundamentals of Music around 480 AD, once wrote “Music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired” (Storr 1). If we cannot be free from music, then why not make music free for us?