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Playing Our Song?

Rekindling the flame of community that Napster first lit will require a service that encourages its users to connect with one another and share their musical experiences.

Christmas, 1981. I am a new husband and I am broke. I am driving around Smyrna, GA, trying to think of cheap but meaningful presents for my wife, when I hear Mac Davis sing “My Bestest Friend” on the radio. The song’s mixture of humor and humanity, romance, and friendship captured something I wanted to say. I pulled over to a local record shop and bought the single on impulse, spending the last money I had in my pocket. Good call. Over the years, “My Bestest Friend” became “our song.”

Unfortunately, some time in my graduate school days, the recording industry made a concerted effort to get all of us to switch over from vinyl to digital recordings. In an effort at premature planned obsolescence, the local shops stopped selling needles for our phonograph and for want of a needle, our music library was lost. We didn’t hear our song for a decade.

When we discovered Napster, one of the first songs I downloaded was “My Bestest Friend.” I left a note on the computer for my wife to read through our playlist and see what I had found. It’s hard to make surprising romantic gestures after 20-plus years of marriage, but this one hit the jackpot.

These experiences came back to me as I read some of the hoopla surrounding the launch of Apple’s iTunes service, which the recording industry is billing as its legal alternative to Napster. iTunes gives you 99-cent downloads of any of 200,000 songs from five different music companies. According to some reports, half a million iTunes are being downloaded every week, suggesting that the service has found its niche with consumers.

There are lots of reason to be excited about iTunes, which, by all reports, has a diverse array of music, allows consumers to buy only the songs they want, is well indexed, and is easy to use. So far, it is only available for the Macintosh; PC users can’t even access the playlist.

Breaking the legal logjam, iTunes is enticing a range of other major media companies, including Microsoft and America Online, to get into the download business. Everyone is acting as if iTunes were the ideal substitute for Napster. But iTunes abandons Napster’s most valuable aspect. No, Metallica, I don’t mean free music. I would gladly have paid a monthly subscription fee for a legal version of Napster, and I ended up buying a high percentage of the albums I sampled. Perhaps for teens, Napster’s appeal was the ability to stretch their allowance a little further. But as Napster’s consumer base expanded and diversified, it began to include a lot of fortysomething geezers like me. Industry statistics confirm that aging baby boomers buy more CDs each year on average than their offspring. And for us middle-aged users, at least, Napster was about something else.

What I loved about Napster was the ability to connect, often in the wee hours of the morning, with total strangers who shared my tastes and interests and to discover new music, which I would never have heard otherwise.

To understand the difference between Napster and iTunes, one has to go back to “My Bestest Friend.” Seen from the producer’s perspective, Napster represented only depreciation-a destruction of the value of their investments in creating new intellectual property. Yet consumers also produce value in music-through their sentimental investments and social interactions. We didn’t just like “Bestest Friend”; we appreciated it-that is, we increased its value and prolonged its lifespan. Mac Davis’s song remained meaningful to my wife and me long after it had passed out of radio rotation. iTunes is about music as commodity; Napster was about music as mutual experience. iTunes is about cheap downloads; Napster was about file sharing-with sharing the key word.

Napster emerged at a contradictory moment in the history of American music. On the one hand, the compactness of the CD made it possible for companies to keep a larger and larger backlist in circulation. On the other hand, U.S. radio stations were narrowing their playlist formulas as national conglomerates bought out local stations. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the latest song by Ricky Martin, but most artists get little or no air time. Once Napster appeared, it was as if there were suddenly millions of small radio stations, whose playlists were shaped by the passions of their individual owners and not by formulas, industry trends, or demographic calculations. While I was on the Napster bandwagon, I bought more CDs than I ever had before or since because I was better informed about the range of options available to me. I don’t think I ever downloaded a current hit. Most of what I accessed were songs and artists that the record companies had probably forgotten altogether. The glory of Napster was that I could discover eccentric and forgotten artists, people like the 1950s Peruvian lounge singer Yma Sumac, or the 1940s jazz composer Raymond Scott. I sampled world music, rediscovered country, experimented with techno, re-engaged with New Wave, and listened to some gifted amateurs.

Using Napster was less like going to a well-ordered and well-stocked chain store and more like rummaging through the dust-covered bins at a used record shop. A lot of what you downloaded was scratchy or warped, but sometimes, you found a real gem. Using Napster was like getting a song tape put together by someone who deeply loved every cut. By comparison, iTunes is antiseptic and impersonal-like shopping in a mall record shop at midnight when nobody else is around.

I understand why Napster was too good to be true-or at least too good to be legal. Nobody wanted to rip off the artists; we were their fans, for heaven’s sake. But in shutting down Napster, the recording industry killed a powerful promotional mechanism that could have helped expand the market for their backlists, create cult followings for obscure artists, and broaden the tastes of demographics underserved by radio. The idiocy continues with recent announcements that the recording industry is going to file massive law suits against individual file-sharers, not willing to trust that iTunes and its like would win over customers to legal downloads. The record companies should have shown real leadership-that is, figure out where the mob was going, run around in front, and shout “follow me.” They should have used Napster as market research to discover what people wanted badly enough they would step outside the law to get it.

To some degree, that’s what Apple has done with iTunes, recognizing that for a sizable chunk of their market, downloads have become a way of life and recording companies had better catch up with them or lose them as customers altogether. One recent study found that 48 percent of American teens had downloaded an MP3 in the past month and another 30 percent said they would have if they had higher bandwidth. These are consumers of music who prefer to listen on their computer and are informed enough to want to buy only those cuts that rock their world.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that iTunes has “My Bestest Friend” and a good bit of Sumac and Scott. But many of the categories I care about are underrepresented-at least so far-and are likely to remain so since they aren’t going to be top sellers and since I fall outside the demographic groups that Apple calculates are going to be early adopters.

iTunes has none of the peer-to-peer features that made Napster so effective at spreading the word about unknown or forgotten artists. iTunes doesn’t allow you to share songs, fair enough, but it also doesn’t allow any easy way for users to communicate with each other, even to share the titles of the songs on their playlists. People are finding ways around that obstacle, but Apple is aggressively shutting them down as fast as they appear.

This leaves room for a competitor that understands the social dimensions of music distribution. Or perhaps Apple itself will come up with a better way for consumers to interact with each other around their music purchases. But we aren’t going to get what we want if we roll over quietly and accept the music industry myth that the only reason we liked Napster was that we could get music for free. Perhaps, in the short run, the most we can hope for is that the major labels will use iTunes to circulate their top-selling titles and then turn their back on the underground trade of MP3s from their backlist. I dream that someday Apple, AOL, Microsoft, or some other company will make me an honest man again and still give me a mechanism to connect with all of those other interesting strangers out there who know something I don’t about the hidden treasures of popular music.

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