May 27, 2000
Reinforcing the music monopoly

Michael Zara points out an interesting thing: Napster doesn't get used to promote unknown artists at all. That is, all the music that gets downloaded is stuff by known musicians, so the net effect is that we hear the same old music.

The Napster interface is conducive to finding music that you already know about; how can you search for music that you've never heard of?

If we really want to change the status quo in terms of music, then a conspicuously missing element needs to be reintroduced: people. That is, people need to talk to each other about music, point each other to good tunes, and talk about them.

As it stands, this process is interrupted by the fact that music is inexorably linked to physical objects that have to be paid for, so the only way you find out about new music is to listen to the radio, which are controlled by corporate music labels, or know someone in a band.

The net promises to change that, because it lets people try out music without paying for it up front, and thus lets more diversity come through, and allows it to spread by word of mouth.

Napster does not facilitate this, because it is about files, not people. That's why the web and email are the media of choice for spreading music, and more importantly, spreading the word about what is good.

However, Napster's role in de-corporatizing music is hardly nullified - it provides the wake up call that wide distribution over the net is a simple fact, not up for negootiation. What the net ultimately has the potential to bring back is the general view that music - and art - is something to be shared widely, not simply converted into capital.

For people (instead of corporations) to decide what music is popular, music needs to be available free of charge, at least initially. Otherwise, the entire advantage of the net is lost or marginalized.

People still need to make money. No one is arguing against that. There are a few ways of resolving these two seemingly disparate elements.

One such way that is in effect now is Orange Alley, where you get a kickback if you tell your friends about music you download there.

Another is voluntary micropayments, which proposes to apply the shareware model to music.

posted by dru in blog