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Requiem For A Napster Dream, or Is This Groundhog Day?

by Eric Din

in Arts and Culture, Laws and Sausage, Musician, Webmaster & Geek Stuff

Here’s an article whose headline provocatively claims:

People Just Aren’t That Into Music, Study Finds…

Now that’s click-bait for someone like me, and like the article itself, it’s geared to invite discussion and comment (and rants and raves). I bet it will succeed in that. The thread under the post is already a revealing slice of some of the divergent views on the state of music in the digital era.

We’re still trying to answer the same questions that emerged the day “mp3″ became a word. A good friend of mine who’s been in the record industry for almost five decades refers to this period we’re in as “Groundhog Day” – a reference to the movie where the same thing happens over and over until finally you get it right.

The opportunity to make everyone happy, and the music and tech worlds richer, arrived when Napster disrupted everything in the early 2000’s. Instead of making a smart revenue-sharing deal right then and there, with Napster charging $7 or $10 a month or whatever for a no-ads experience, and providing free service with ads to everyone else, the labels and Napster execs and investors had to blow that moment because of their colossal greed and short-sighted blundering egos.

Napster came from the ground up. It came from a music user, to his friends, and it caught fire because people loved it. Because it was fun. Oh and yeah, because PEOPLE ARE INTO MUSIC!! Napster was a great thing that was not planned in any boardroom. And everything that has happened since then in online music is not half as cool as what Napster was, and could have been if they had all recognized and respected its unique power and potential. The money would have rolled in, without much further tech development, using Shawn Fanning’s original file-sharing design, and the bandwidth costs distributed among users and their ISP’s. Artists, copyright owners, lean-forward music fans, lean-back music fans, tastemakers, record labels, and Napster’s backers, all would have been well served by keeping that structure intact and monetized properly. Oh well.

Instead people are debating whether it makes sense for Pandora to succeed in passing legislation which will allow them to pay copyright owners and music publishers essentially nothing. And whether that’s something music creators should actually LIKE because it gets them EXPOSURE. And vomit-inducing things like that. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Pandora, as a listener sometimes. But let’s be clear: they want to use other peoples’ recorded music for their own enrichment, freely and widely, and if they could, they’d arrange so they don’t have to pay anything at all. 

UPDATE: Pandora has backed off their royalty slashing legislation effort for now, apparently because of the horrible publicity it earned them. But their bottom line remains and if someone else pushes that type of law along, Pandora will be more than happy to pay as little as possible. Same with the rest of the streaming companies. They have investors, they are corporations. They therefor exist to make money, as a simple matter of law. That’s true no matter what they may say in press releases or in their lovely presentations about loving music and wanting to be fair to artists and copyright owners. That’s all BS.

Content owners have to fight to maintain their respect and value in this equation. It’s a fight that should have been put mostly to bed in 2001 with a 50/50 – Napster / Content Owner, across the board deal. The big labels would have made bazillions. Smaller labels and artists would have also made good money. Napster’s investors would have laughed to the bank every day for the rest of ever. And the tech sector wouldn’t still be dumping billions into developing a hundred different services that aren’t, honestly, half as fun as Napster was.

Fanning got it right. The fans got it right. The “grown-ups” got it wrong.

Another day.

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