To file share or not to file share? That is the question. Should free music off the internet be legal? Who is in the right- Napster or the music industry? There are some of the topics I hoped to discuss when I invited four journalists to my house to debate the controversial issue of online music.
Ding-dong! “Uh-oh”, I think, wiping my hands on a paper towel. “They must be here early.” It’s six-thirty, my guests aren’t due to arrive until seven, and I am already a half-hour behind. The lobsters are still boiling on the stove, the chunky potatoes are rock-hard and my spinach salad lies in pieces all over the kitchen floor. Things aren’t off to such a good start.
I am supposed to be hosting a small, informal discussion tonight with a few journalists. The topic of the forum concerns the recent legal uproar about online music organizations such as Napster, Morpheus and Kazaa. I have invited a variety of people; some of whom have clashing opinions. I am looking forward to a heated and intellectual discussion; which will be good because I am planning on writing a book on the subject of online music. I haven’t decided yet whose side I am on; the music industry or the internet music providers. Hopefully, tonight’s discussion will provide me with some insight as to which side to stand on. Or maybe, I won’t have to choose a side…who knows?
As I walk to the front door, I can’t help but feel just a little bit anxious, but excited at the same time. “I wonder who it is…who had the nerve to be fifteen minutes early?” I think to myself. I open the great oak door to find Tobey Grumet, a journalist from Popular Mechanics magazine.
“How’s it going?” he asks casually as he walks through the entryway. “It’s nice to finally meet you.” I say. I can’t help but stare at him. I had heard that he was good looking, but geez! He has shoulder-length blonde hair that he has pulled back into a ponytail. He has chiseled features, but not too chiseled. He is wearing gray tweed pants that are only slightly baggy, a black woolen sweater and a hemp necklace. “Wow, nice place,” he remarks as he walks into my dining room. “Do you own this house?”
“Yeah, I do..” I reply, shaking my head to get out of my trance. He follows me into the kitchen, and, seeing the state that it is in, offers to help me get ready. “It’s a good thing I got here first. I don’t think that Michael Miller would appreciate this…” he remarks as he is chopping up a tomato for the salad. “That guy is a total corporate pushover” he continues, his chopping getting a little bit more intense.
I smile politely. I want to be completely impartial tonight, and I try very hard not to let what Tobey is saying affect my opinion of Michael Miller, a journalist a PC Magazine. We work in silence for about ten more minutes. By the time the doorbell rings again, the only thing left to do is drain the water out of the potato pot. “Thank you so much for all your help,” I exclaim as I walk to answer the door. “You are a lifesaver!”
“No problem!” Tobey shouts after me. Who should be at the door, but Michael Miller. “Nice to meet you” he says to me in a grave manner. He is a short, thin man of about 45, with graying hair. His gray Armani suit looks a tad bit too big on him. “Goodness, Mr. Miller,” I exclaim. “You are making me feel like a bum in my jeans and turtleneck!” “Please,” he replies, “I apologize for the way I’m dressed. You must forgive me; I just came from a journalist’s convention downtown. I didn’t have time to change.”
“No worries,” I assure him. One by one, they all arrive; Brian Smithers and Margaret Popper. We chat informally for a few minutes in the study over bourbon. I am mostly quiet, making mental observations of the ways my guests treat each other. For the most part, they seem to be enjoying each other’s company. Even Tobey seems to be getting along with Michael Miller.
Next, my guests are all seated while I bring out the food. Our conversation starts out very formal. Then, I bring out the big question: “So, does anyone have any thoughts on the new online music providers like MUSICNET?”
There is a short silence. My guests look at their plates, as if thinking about the best way to answer the question. I know all of them are thinking hard about the question; being journalists to major technology magazines, this kind of issue is a major obsession with them.
It was finally Michael Miller who breaks the ice. “Well,” he says, putting down his fork, “I think it’s obvious that the Napsters of the world were breaking the law and cheating legitimate musicians out of money.”
“Wait a second,” protests Tobey. “Don’t you think it’s a little bit unfair to say that? It’s not like the ‘musicians’ aren’t getting enough money anyways. And it isn’t the musicians who are getting gypped, it’s the multi-million dollar music companies like BMG.”
“The real issue isn’t about money, it’s more about the reputations of musicians,” says Margaret Popper, a journalist at Business Week. She tucks her short brown bob cut back behind her ears. “Doesn’t it concern anyone here that free online music allows people to essentially preview albums? Most people won’t buy an album just for one song if they can listen to it beforehand for free. These online music providers are contributing to a complete decrease in album sales.”
“Look,” says Brian Smithers, “you are all missing the point. Free online music is about more than just getting music. Did you ever stop to think that independent musicians use these providers to get out there? It is a fabulous resource for people who aren’t affiliated with the music industry giants like EMI and BMG.”
I sit back and watch interested. So far, I’ve got two for free online music, two against it. I ask another leading question. “Do you think it should be legal to create and share music files online for free?”
Again, there is a slight pause. Brian Smithers raises his shaven head and replies, “Well, yes, absolutely. I mean, think about it. You are already paying for internet service. Why shouldn’t the music be free? The internet is a place where everyone can come together and share things. It is a community. It should be free.”
“No,” snaps Michael Miller, “the music that is shared online is part of an industry. An industry has a major goal to make a lot of money. How are industries supposed to make any money, and keep the economy going, if people can get music for free? It is cheating them out of money.”
Brian looks directly at Miller with a glare in his eyes. His eyebrow ring glints in the light. “This is exactly what I am talking about. People who are obsessed with corporate America. Well, I hate to break it to you, but life isn’t all about corporations. It’s the little people who matter too.”
“Whoa, hold on there partner!” exclaims Miller. “I am not suggesting that. But when something is copyrighted, by law that copyright cannot be broken. It’s a legal thing.”
As the night wears on, the conversation grows more and more heated. My guests remain stubborn and stick to their original points until it is time for them to go. As the last car drives off down the street, I head to the kitchen to wash dishes. My mind starts to wander.
Napster launched in early 1999. It was the first of its kind; the idea and technology for sharing music files online had never been dreamed of before. (Brown) It quickly became wildly popular; after all, what music listener could argue with free music? Soon after its emergence, several other Napster copy-cats came onto the scene. Also soon after its launch, the Recording Industry Association of America made Napster its “public enemy number 1” (Brown). Napster was the first to be hit with claims of illegality by the music industry. According to Janelle Brown in her article on www.salon.com, bands such as Metallica complained that they were being cheated out of copyright money, and they claimed that CD sales were dropping. The Supreme Court ultimately decided that the music industry was correct to demand that Napster shut down (Brown). One by one, the music industry and the courts put a stop to all free online music. Napster wanna-be’s continue to emerge, but they will be brought to court sooner or later and receive the same fate as Napster. Although the ruling has been made final, there are still many activists who continue to argue the validity of free online music.
My guests on both sides had brought up valid points. But in order to write my book, I realize I would have to take a side. This was not a black and white issue. I think about the opposing sides. I definitely agree with Michael Miller about the legalities of free online music. Copyrights are protected under the law. But, on the other hand, it is very difficult to monitor what goes onto the internet. There are plenty of things on the internet that are supposedly protected under copyright laws, but they are still there and can be accessed for free. No one is bothering to go to the Supreme Court over these things. I don’t think that it should be different for music. Additionally, Margaret Poppers’ point that free online music hurts musicians’ reputations is very hard to swallow for me. I don’t believe that big name bands like Metallica care about their reputations as much as they care about milking as much money as they can. The same goes for companies like EMI and BMG. Brian Smithers had brought up an interesting point about the internet being a community. I think about how this remark could potentially add to my book. The idea that the internet is increasingly replacing traditional social settings has always been a topic of major interest to me. I find it fascinating how much things can change over time, yet not really change. People are still communicating with each other and participating in a community, but many have found a different medium for doing so: the internet. Instead of sitting around in a coffee shop discussing the latest popular album that everyone just has to buy; now people can congregate on the internet. Most online file-sharing sites have a place where you can talk to people and share your opinions on the music.
The more I think about it, I also like the idea of being able to preview an album before I actually decide to buy it. There are a lot of albums out there that, in my opinion, only have one good song on them. I don’t want to be throwing seventeen dollars down the drain if I can save that money by realizing beforehand that the album might not be very good. I don’t think that this is the case a lot of the time. Most likely people will preview an album and then decide that they really like it, so they will go out and buy it. If anything, being able to preview an album is a good thing because it puts pressure on mainstream musicians and record companies to produce the finest work they can. Most songs on an album are “filler songs”, that is they are there simply to take up space on the album, and aren’t usually very good.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I will write my book on the advantages of online music file-sharing.
Before I started this project, I really didn’t have strong feelings either way about online file-sharing. I have used free sharing, such as Kazaa and now Lime Wire, but I never stopped to think about what I was doing. I did have more of a bias towards favoring online file-sharing, but mostly because it allowed me to download music for free.
I also never knew very much about the Napster court case. To me, that was the defining moment of sort of the end of free music downloads. I knew that Napster was going to not be free anymore, but I didn’t know why. Now I know the specifics of the case, and I favor Napsters’ side. As an avid music lover, and a consumer, I think I have the right to listen to music for free before I go out and buy it. It might decrease CD sales by a small percentage, but the music industry is still huge. And perhaps putting musicians on the spot by listening to their songs for free and then deciding whether or not to buy their album is a good thing. It puts more pressure on them to spend time making their music as good as it possibly can be.
I think that the most compelling argument for me was Tobey Grumet. He argues that the controversy, although it is claimed to be about reputations, is more about money. This is absolutely true the more you think about it. Many little band names do not have a problem with free file sharing. It is the very popular bands signed under big label names, like Metallica, that are causing an uproar. I don’t see how their songs being on Napster is harmful to their reputation. If anything, it’s good because it means that people like their songs. It doesn’t harm their reputations as musicians; it more than likely helps it and allows them to be recognized as a very influential band in the history of modern rock music.
My sources, I think, were all very legitimate. They all came from magazines that our library subscribes to. Salon.com is most likely biased towards free online file sharing, but the information that I got from them was purely fact-based, like when Napster was launched and so forth. I think that I got a good variety of journalist’s opinions on the issue of online file-sharing. Each of them had to take an opinion on the subject because it is part of their job. And, for the most part, I don’t believe there was any kind of prior incentive to their taking one side or the other. Each of them has an extensive technological background and I think they looked at the issue pretty objectively.
I learned a lot about online music from this project. I never realized what an important part of the technology community it plays. It is fun to download free music, rate it, and perhaps even discuss it with fellow music lovers. And it is convenient and thrifty to be able to check out albums before you decide to buy them. My final decision is that online music is a positive aspect of the internet that I hope, somehow, will continue to remain free and entertain music lovers through the means of the internet.