Friday, July 3, 2009

Looting & Realm Mingling (2001)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, July 3 - This originally posted on, 3/5/01


This was supposed to be the final weekend to binge at the Napster smorgasbord, one last free-music looting spree in the face of imminent legal doom... the end of an era, as 21 month spans are now called. And it is the end of an era, although not remotely in the way that the big 5 record labels want it to be. Napster's looming ruin (or at least radical retooling) will mark the first and probable last time the music industry will have someone to sue over the issue of free downloadable music. Like the menacing broom shards in "Fantasia", Napster's collapse opens the door for its 60 million customers to start trading mano a mano. Direct filesharing is already possible under OpenNap (which, as free software, offers no one to sue except the people doing the sharing - otherwise known as the music industry's own market). Upcoming software and connections are already rendering the "content ownership" portion of the music industry's reign economically irrelevant, forcing new business plans.

Napster's own launch also marked the end of a different kind of era. There was once an age when one could be in a band and safely write, record and release whole albums of material entirely unknown to their own family. This was the era of Comfortable Compartmentalization, and the luxury of that time is gone forever. I date its passing to Christmas 1994, when many of my friends returned home for the holidays to the horror of their entire extended clan gathered around the computer screen, wee cousins and ripe grandparents alike. Painstakingly concealed details of one's band life, many of us learned, could now be unearthed in seconds with the click of an AOL icon. This new era, the age of Total Family Disclosure has been a difficult time for some. Who wants to have their realms mixed without prior consent?

Recorded music is, after all, just a subset of intellectual property. And intellectual property is like furniture that can't be stolen. If a record you appear on goes missing from your own collection, you can always find a copy at a friend's house. If your band's been lucky, you might be able to find another copy at a record store. Peer-to-peer song filesharing finalized this concept. From 1999 on, one could count on the inscribing of their recorded music, by sheer virtue of being recorded music, in the global Book Of Life. A system designed by the Defense Department to insure survivability of government documents after a nuclear war now also insures survival of one's songs after a nuclear war, somewhere, on someone's hard drive.

But intellectual property can also be like flawed furniture, the couch with the bad leg that hobbles after you forlornly. Artists with regrettable songs that were regrettably posted online are wishing a recall could be as easy as cramming all the toothpaste back in the tube. For every Beach Boys' "Smile" that was successfully self-quarantined, there are 10,000 outtakes, flubbed live tracks or demo versions of songs that were never meant to see the light of day. Musicians with unripe earlier work (or, uh, who said dumb things between songs at live shows) now have to face the music. Usually their own, following them in ghostly files from terminal to terminal.