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Napster, we hardly knew ye

by Tom Zjaba, 20 February 2001

Unless you live under a rock, have been trying to survive on a desert island or have been abducted by aliens, you have heard of Napster and its battles in court. If you know of the very controversial software program that allows users to download music files on the Internet, then you probably also know that its days of being a free service are limited. Soon, the service will cost you money and impose a bunch of restrictions. While I can understand the record companies wanting to protect their investment, it will be sad to see the end of Napster as we know it.

Napster offered consumers something that the record companies never would’ve: the power of total choice and freedom. The record companies have ignored us, their customers, by limiting what we listen to and how. With no real try-before-you-buy system in place (short of borrowing the album from a friend or the library), consumers have been forced to buy most albums based on hearing a song or two. For every Beatles or Rolling Stones that can produce hit after hit, there are countless one-hit wonders. What if you like that one hit from a short-lived artist? In the past, you had a few choices: buy the whole album (I will use the term “album” to represent album/CD/cassette tape) for a single song, or wait and hope it ended up on a compilation with some other songs you actually want (try and see how many of their compilation albums have recycled songs). Not much of a choice, is it? With Napster, you could download the songs you wanted and listen to them to your heart’s content. If you liked multiple songs off one album, then you would be inclined to buy that album with the knowledge that you will not get stuck with a dud. I know that Napster has helped in my purchase of music. It has both given me the impulse to buy albums that I otherwise may not have purchased and helped me to avoid albums that feature one hit single and a bunch of filler. Now isn’t that so much better?

While record companies have made some very small strides towards giving you a voice in what kind of music you purchase, they are pretty pathetic. A few companies (like Columbia House) offer you the opportunity to make your own CD full of the hits you want. Have you ever looked at these? You get a handful of songs that are worthwhile and a bunch of songs that most people would have little or no interest in. Also absent are any of the really popular groups. Think you’ll find the Beatles on there? Guess again. And forget about Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. The record companies want you to keep buying those groups’ albums, whether you like all the songs or not.

What if you like a song from some obscure artist, the record is out of print and there is almost no chance of ever seeing it in print again? Take Kevin Raleigh, a local artist. He used to be in the Michael Stanley Band, which was popular in the Cleveland, Ohio, area during the 1980s. After the band broke up, he had a very minor solo hit called “Moonlight on Water”. The problem is that it was the only really good song off an album that quickly went out of print. With Napster, I can search (granted, it took a while for it to show up), find the song and enjoy it. Before that, the only version I could find was an awful version by Laura Branigan.

What I will miss about Napster even more than this total freedom is the evolution of the service. Being one of those people who have been on Napster since the early days, I’ve been able to enjoy watching it grow in content and variety. Its content went from almost exclusively music to include stand-up comedy, books, speeches and interviews. Not only can you listen to your favorite music but you can download and listen to a presidential speech from John F. Kennedy, an audio version of “The Hobbit” or George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Use on Television.” Plus, many people have put together their own compilations of favorite phrases from television shows or homemade parodies. I looked forward to the day when I could easily download and listen to an old radio show, or perhaps a classic baseball game or boxing match. Imagine being able to hear when Babe Ruth called his shot or one of the classic Jake LaMotta/Sugar Ray Robinson matches. Think of the benefits teachers could derive by being able to download Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day in Infamy” speech after the Pearl Harbor Bombing. Sure, you could find these historical speeches elsewhere, but usually after a lengthy search over the Net, wading through a series of moved and dead sites.

It’s too bad that such a wonderful and evolving community is going to be destroyed. It may continue in a controlled form (assuming that Bertelsmann is able to convince the other record companies to agree to their proposal, which would be nothing short of a miracle), but it will not have the chance to really develop into all that it could be. This saddens me. Sure, Napster allows people to get music for free. Sure, people and corporations spend a lot of time creating, producing and distributing this music and should be compensated for it. But the death of Napster is going to affect more than our control over what music we listen to and how – it is also going to put a halt to a very vibrant, evolving and easily accessible pool of music, entertainment and information. And for that, we will all be a little poorer.

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