Weighing in on Napster

I would like to take this time to discuss with you a few thoughts I have about the well-known phenomenon Napster.

I know, I know. Everyone and his or her next-door-neighbor’s best-friend’s veterinarian’s hairdresser has had something to say about it over the last couple of months.

But now I’d like to proffer my perspective on the matter, from the point of view of an amateur philosopher and a professional media planner/buyer.

First, can I just tell you all that Napster has become the coolest application in the Internet Age since the browser itself? It has shown yet again just what it is the Internet promises to do and how it will deliver on those promises. No one could have foreseen just how immensely popular this application would become, and yet, in hindsight, it seems clumsily obvious.

Think about it. College kids with high-speed connections coupled with searchable files of more recorded (and bootlegged) music than could be found in a dozen record stores throughout town (or CD stores or whatever you want to call them). Certainly this thing called Napster that didn’t even exist a year ago would become more popular than AOL.

The recording industry, late out of the gate in the arena of digital distribution of music, but certain that as the 10,000-pound gorilla it could bide its time and the masses would wait with it, was caught with its pants down, arrogance around its ankles. Its knee-jerk reaction, once it got to its feet untangled, was to sue.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), representing the big record companies, has been waging a battle to stop the flow of illegally copied MP3s throughout the world. Last December, the RIAA sued Napster for copyright violations. But it wasn’t just the faceless behemoth of the recording industry at large that was caught off guard. Recording artists, such as Metallica and Dr. Dre, joined the fray, filing suites against both Napster and three universities: Yale University, the University of Southern California, and Indiana University.

It seems strange to me that an industry that relies so heavily on the youth market to stay in existence would do something to so completely alienate that market. Authenticity and innovation has always been what attracts the youth to any cultural phenomenon, be it pop culture or subculture. To choose to do battle against millions and millions of music lovers seems an odd strategy for the music industry to adopt. And it seems even more of an anathema when the music group chosen to be the poster child for this effort is the same group whose first album was titled, “Kill ’em All!” in reference to record-label executives.

Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, is anything but polite toward MP3 downloaders. In a press release a few months ago, he said that Napster traders have “the moral fiber of common looters.”

Blessedly, things are not moving so quickly in the music industry’s favor. A ruling from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week allows the music-swapping service Napster to remain in operation, when a previous court order would have forced the company to halt the sharing of copyrighted music effectively shutting it down.

The order, however, did not directly affect the estimated 20 million people who have used Napster’s software to download countless MP3-encoded songs since last year. The record industry would have to file separate lawsuits against individuals, effectively making enemies of 20 million music lovers.

What Napster and the music industry need to do is get together and maybe talk to some media folks and marketing consultants who understand the space better than guys who still think the 45 RPM is cool.

Almost a month ago, Mediaweek had in its IQ section a few suggestions from folks in the industry about what Napster can do to survive (since, really, it isn’t a business yet). But I think it can create a business and make nice with the recording industry and keep its loyal fans.

Record companies should work with Napster and other technology companies to find a way to target advertising specifically for the album from which a downloaded track came, or for the genre of music to which it belongs. At first glance, it seems like something that could be perceived as “selling out,” but the truth is, everything has looked like that as it experiences cultural declination. MTV, as the most obvious example, certainly could be seen as a very successful sellout entity and a very popular media vehicle for advertisers trying to get in front of the youth market in this country.

No user would fault Napster for trying to make a living so that it can continue to offer such a well-loved service. And many users would be grateful to know where they could buy that long-lost album that used to be their favorite in junior high school, after coming across a song that they hadn’t heard in 15 years while surfing Napster.

We could all win if Napster and the music industry could just kiss and make up. Music lovers, record producers, and musicians alike would be grateful. Everyone gets what he or she wants. The ultimate non-zero-sum arrangement.

Related reading