Music makes the people come together

By the

February 22, 2001

Napster is almost dead. No one seems to know for sure when it will actually die. In fact, I just went to the Napster website for the first time ever. It’s still there?it might stay there forever, but it certainly is going to change.

Unlike most of you immoral low lifes, I am overjoyed by the demise of this sick and twisted institution of organized greed. For those of you who don’t know what Napster is, it is an internet service that connects its members to each other so that they can trade MP3 files. The problem: The company doesn’t exactly ask musicians or their moderately evil representatives in the music recording industry for permission.

Side note: I don’t really think you’re all low lifes, but … I do. This isn’t some joke. I’ll keep going. When you finish downloading stuff that isn’t yours, why don’t you all head down to 7-Eleven, grab a gun and a ski mask and take all the candy you want. We’ll get back to this analogy plenty of times.

I know that you think I am joking, because most of my best friends who love Napster and use it all the time do too. But I’m dead serious. You’re all a bunch of petty thieves that won’t acknowledge that the very stuff you are downloading (which indicates that you value it) belongs to the people (whether they’re corporate sell-outs or genuine geniuses) that created it.

I don’t ever talk about Napster like this because I am worried that I’ll lose all my friends. (Writers block forced me to go public this week.) So for the past year, I have quietly been looking for some reasonable defense of using Napster.

As far as I can tell, there aren’t any. But there are two damn good defenses, even if neither one is even close to reasonable.

My favorite is the I’m-doing-something-wrong-but-it’s-OK-because-I-can,respond-with-a-threat response. Basically, whenever regular Napster users see Metallica or some record industry dude ripping on Napster, they start yelling at the television: “Damn you. You can’t stop it. I’ll just go to another site and do the same thing.”

I can dismiss this argument as simply a threat. It’s not really an argument, but for those of you who don’t see it so clearly, I think the following analogy works well.

“Hello Mr. Police Officer. I can’t believe you think I should pay for this candy. Even if you stop me now, I’ll just find a candy story that doesn’t sell donuts next time.”

Now, I am not quite idealistic enough to think that the shutdown of Napster is going to do much to protect creativity. Still, the death of Napster is, at the least, a symbol and, at best, a precedent. Maybe the next Napster won’t draw out the legal arguments for a full year.

Of course, it’s more likely that whatever replaces Napster won’t even be taken to trial.

The other argument is that Napster is just like radio. (This is the best articulation of a general theme of arguments that claim that Napster is good for musicians.) Advocates of this view say bands that aren’t big enough for MTV or radio could use Napster to reach out.

That’s fine as long as they give their permission (want Napster promoting them) and the medium in question isn’t riding on the backs of better musicians who believe their creative content is worth something.

Napster itself endorses this train of thought. As I discovered on my inaugural, short and only visit, there’s a nice quote from Chuck D. advocating this very view.

While this claim is a step up from the threat response most of my friends prefer, it is just plain false. As a starter, bands get a few pennies every time their song plays on the radio. With Napster, one download and a song is free for the rest of eternity.

Secondly, and more crucially, radio stations have to get permission from bands to play their music. This small difference is the fundamental problem with Napster. The company never asked for permission.

It may be easier to ask for forgiveness, but when it comes to stealing property, this logic breaks down. It’s still true that it’s easier, but suddenly the action isn’t so harmless.

The theme I noticed at the Napster page is: We’re the little guy fighting against the man, just like the guy robbing the 7-Eleven for a loaf of bread, a case of beer and a pack of smokes. There are some cases where the evil greedy corporate bastards are right though. This is one of those times.

A CD being too expensive is not justification for putting on a ski mask (online anonymity), pulling a gun and taking it. Getting the same songs through Napster is just as bad. The only difference is that instead of requiring $50 to go buy a ski mask and handgun, this method requires the criminal to be rich enough to own a computer and, in most cases, have access to some sort of high-speed means of communicating with the host computer. (Side note: I am also fortunate to have parents wealthy enough and nice enough to buy me a computer.)

We are not talking about some struggle against the man here. We’re talking about a bunch of (excuse the generalizations, I like to be dramatic), generally speaking, rich kids that are whining about the fact that they don’t like paying $18 for a CD.

If Napster really wanted to help out those that can’t afford $18 CDs, they’d take their profits and give poor kids radios instead of fighting for the right of kids with computers.

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