It's 1985, and a 14-year-old boy in the suburbs has just received his first shipment from the Columbia House Record & Tape Club: 12 albums for a penny, including Duran Duran's Rio, Thomas Dolby's The Golden Age of Wireless, The Police's Ghost in the Machine, and Billy Joel's The Stranger. The box arrives on a Saturday afternoon, and late into the evening on Sunday, the boy is still working his way through the package, playing each record from start to finish, savoring every song. Overnight, his music collection has doubled.
Now it's 1999, and another 14-year-old boy in the suburbs has just received his first CD burner. He hooks it up to the family computer and goes online to find some of his favorite modern-rock songs, like Barenaked Ladies' "One Week," Orgy's cover of "Blue Monday," and an Everlast song whose title he won't remember two years later. In those ensuing two years, this boy will burn about 500 CDs, some for his personal collection, some for friends.
Two years later, the same kid has given away or lost all 500 of those CDs. Asked about that very first mix CD he made, he says, "I threw it away...no reason."
Stories like this one are happening all over the country. Where young people once expectantly waited for packages in the mail or made eager trips to the record store, now they simply log on to the Internet and download the songs they want. Indeed, if you pay attention to the headlines of your daily newspaper, you can't help but notice that one of the most persistent stories is the impact of technology on the business of recreation in America. But while it's debatable whether the computer age is as pervasive as the predominately white, middle-class American media think it is -- statistics show that households with computers are still in the minority -- there's no denying that it's only a matter of time before the potential of a wired world trickles down to almost everyone. When that happens, the issues being debated by the early adopters in their overheated chat rooms will have long since been decided by those very same people.
Most pertinently, the struggle between the content providers and the consumers -- the latter of whom have become accustomed to receiving the wares of the former for free, thanks to the efforts of certain entrepreneurial radicals -- may well have been resolved, by treaty or by legal obliteration. The biggest music news of 2001's first half was the court ruling against Shawn Fanning, who created a service called Napster, which allows Web surfers to connect with select members of the online community who have converted the hottest new CDs into easily transmitted digital files.
Before Napster, the buzz was around MP3.com, a Web site that was supposedly providing the same easy access to ripped-off tunes. But now MP3.com has been seen by the music industry as more of a godsend. The MP3 technology may be what is allowing a clean transfer of pirated music files, but MP3.com is more concerned with providing songs by artists who want their work to be swapped around. And MP3.com has expanded its service, providing a way for artists with no label affiliation to sell made-to-order CDs to fans and strangers, and even paying the artists -- ASCAP-style -- for each download their song receives.
So which is it? Will the availability of free music online mean that musicians get their work in the hands of more people, and thus potentially make more money? Or will a generation raised on free music find no reason to spend more than the cost of their power and phone bills -- and a 49-cent blank CD -- to hear what they want to hear? Will the record industry collapse?
Those are the questions that keep overpaid record company execs up nights, but there's an even more interesting series of questions for those of us civilians following the fluctuations of the music business: Will the rising generation relate to music differently than the generations before? Will their tastes be broader, less dictated by radio and MTV? Will they be more fickle, burning out on songs before they've even listened to them all the way through once?
Will anyone ever again get excited by the idea of 12 records for a penny?
Meet Happy Cow. He's the second 14-year-old -- now 16 -- whom we met at the top of this story. Happy Cow was a name he adopted when he became a "courier" -- someone who helps distribute pirated files on the Internet -- and since his real name might conceivably get him in trouble with the authorities, the nickname will have to suffice. He's a bright, good-looking kid, the son of a computer-savvy guy who has a job helping to maintain the network for one of the city's biggest employers. Happy Cow has been into music off and on since he was a toddler, letting his interest wane when other interests took hold -- video games, movies, sports, and, most enduringly, computers.
He plans to work in some sort of computer-related field when he gets out of school, perhaps in Web design, and he plans to make money. When he got his first CD burner in April 1999, he began taking orders from classmates at his private school. He currently charges $5 to burn a CD with a mix of songs or $3 to burn an artist's entire CD, which takes less time and searching. Happy Cow did well for a while, but "now everybody has CD burners," he says, "so my business has kinda disappeared."
As a hobby, not for any compensation, Happy Cow set himself up as a courier. The hierarchy of Napster-aided music-swapping works this way: There are "rippers," who get hold of the newest stuff -- often via promotional discs sent to radio stations and newspapers -- and then encode the files for uploading onto a Web site. Couriers go looking for those files, and when they find them, they transmit them to as many other Web sites as they can, as fast as they can. In exchange for their diligence, they get the respect of their peers and often get tipped off as to where to find new music first.
But now Happy Cow says he's getting out of the courier biz. "I [don't] have the time. To stay on a site, you have to be the week's highest uploader." School's getting in the way. Still, he tries to stay on top of the latest rips out there in cyberspace, mostly for the sake of his friends. His own tastes run toward "alternative, but I listen to some rap, because that's what gets released [to the Internet] most." Happy Cow's favorite discs that get ripped are the promo-only modern rock CDs that get sent to radio stations, with 16 or so new cuts from an assortment of acts. "They're edited [for content]," he gripes, "But that's only a real problem with the urban radio promo-onlys."
In Happy Cow's experience, "The demand is for unreleased rap, mainly. I ripped U2's Achtung Baby -- nobody wanted that. There's no market. People aren't going to waste their time, their bandwidth, and their drive space on old alternative stuff." And even new alternative stuff doesn't go over big with his circle. Demand-wise, "Limp Bizkit's biggest is comparable to a mediocre rap release."
Asked if he feels bad about pirating music and taking money away from the musicians he likes, Happy Cow freely confesses that he does. "If I had the money, I would [buy the CDs]. I used to prefer to have a real copy. I would prefer to support the artist." But he knows that he isn't the type to take care of his music. Most of his current collection is "all basically just put by the parking brake in my car. If one gets scratched up, I just burn it again. The lifestyle that I have, a $16 CD wouldn't last long at all."
That's backed up by a look around his room, which features fluid-caked fast-food containers, dirty clothes, and stacks of CDs that have toppled into the middle of the floor. Happy Cow says that he recently stepped onto a pile of un-cased Dave Matthews Band CDs and snapped them all, and the last CD he actually bought -- one of his favorites, by Linkin Park -- he lost a few months after he got it. Will he shell out money to buy new DMB and Linkin Park discs? He shakes his head no, saying that he'll just find them online. "I've already paid for it once," he says. "I don't deserve to pay for it again."
L.A.-based industry player Noah Stone -- former director of the grassroots organization Artists Against Piracy, now the executive director of the more powerfully connected Recording Artists Coalition -- believes that the Happy Cows of the world are only going to grow in number over the next decade. Although he doesn't begrudge them their ingenuity in getting music for free, Stone feels that something has to be done to ensure that musicians continue to make money off their craft and that Happy Cow continues to be a satisfied customer.
The argument often given by the apologists for piracy is that the music industry has kept prices artificially high for years, charging an average of $16 for compact discs that cost a fraction of that to produce (recording costs and marketing inclusive). Stone believes that this defense is simple justification, derived after online piracy became widespread. "I don't think that people were complaining too much until they could get it for free," he says.
Nevertheless, Stone does sympathize with that argument, if only because he feels that the record industry has given too little of that padded profit to the artists who make it possible. Stone is actually one of those artists himself, having recorded a solo album that was released by Domination Records in 1995. Now the 28-year-old singer-songwriter-activist distributes his gently swaying electro-ballads and crunchy guitar anthems via MP3.com, where he has more control of the product and gets more direct satisfaction (emotional and financial) when a listener downloads one of his songs.
Taking advantage of the technology -- harnessing the new ways that consumers are accessing music -- is what Stone encouraged through Artists Against Piracy. "The fact that people have had access means that the desire has been created," he explains. "People have come to experience music in a new way, and that needs to continue. We need to keep our eyes open...and encourage, rather than discourage. We need to realize that the whole business will change as a result of technology."
Focusing on the future is what led Stone to his new post at Recording Artists Coalition, which has already testified in front of Congress -- via co-founder Don Henley -- about copyright issues. But the group is just as concerned with making sure that the music industry keeps the artist in mind as times change. Stone says that he's already attuned to how small innovations can lead quickly to new consumer habits. Although he doesn't download illegally supplied song files, he does burn CDs from legal files and from other CDs. And that change in his habits has come naturally, in the same way that his TV viewing has been altered since he bought a TiVO digital recorder. "It's revolutionized the way I watch TV, and I can't go back," he says.
Thinking about his own entertainment lifestyle has made Stone realize that the traditional metaphors for online music distribution -- that it's like radio, and that people who download pirated songs are like regular radio listeners, scanning across the dial -- just doesn't wash. "Radio is extremely promotional," he says. "But it sells records; it doesn't cannibalize sales. As I see it, [the Internet] is not a promotional tool, it's the whole ball game. Ten years from now, it may be the only way that people get music."
Stone believes that CDs will still exist, but that for them to have any sort of sales appeal, the discs will have to be loaded with extra features and to be sold for premium rates. He reiterates that he has no problem with this natural evolution, so long as it doesn't prevent artists from profiting from their work. It doesn't matter that computer owners who listen to music online are still a minority, or that computer owners period are still a minority. What's important is that, as the technology develops and becomes more widespread, musicians are given their fair shake.
The Washington, D.C.-based Future of Music Coalition believes much the same thing, although it's working from an arguably more radical position, one informed by the struggles of independent musicians. "For too long," the group's manifesto points out, "musicians have had too little voice in the manufacture, distribution, and promotion of their music on a national and international level and too little means to extract fair support and compensation for their work. Manufacturing and distribution monopolies concentrate the power of over 90 percent of music sold into the hands of five labels. With huge media mergers continuing to consolidate the decisions of what to play and promote, it becomes more and more difficult for artists to gain exposure through the few remaining coveted radio spots."
In this light, Future of Music executive director Jenny Toomey considers the Napster question "a red herring," at least as far as independent musicians are concerned. "In this environment, it is impossible to reduce the value of peer-to-peer file trading to one that is black and white or good and bad," she writes on the group's Web site.
Toomey knows something about the musician's struggle. She led her own indie rock band, Tsunami, and released records by herself and others on her own label, Simple Machines, from 1990 to 1998. That experience of trying to get heard in a market dominated by corporate money is precisely what Future of Music is concerned with: making sure that corporate media and big money don't dictate the outcome of online music distribution.
Thus the Napster case has been of much interest to Toomey and her organization. "If there are so many people using this technology," she says, referring to Napster and Napster-like services, "then the regular distribution channels are not serving them and not serving the artist." She's worried about "the effects on free speech" when the government gets involved in regulating content, and she sees the Napster case as another example of shutting something down rather than trying to make it work. "It's easier to find a way to make a file-trading network legal," she insists. "Instead of putting out more trash cans, we're licensing more litter police...it's just not the most logical way."
Toomey also thinks that people can be trusted more than the government or corporations think. "People pay for cable," she says. "They pay for bottled water. People don't fill buckets from the public water fountains and take them home." And access to free water doesn't affect people's thirst, according to Toomey's scenario, so she doesn't fear that the explosion of free music will lead to music having less market value. "Does having the latest Bruce Willis movie on video devalue that film?" she asks, drawing a parallel between cheap movie rentals and first-run theaters. "Probably not."
Jason Pitzer, who books shows clubs and performance halls, says that the club experience has remained a marketable property despite the popularity of the Internet. "The Internet doesn't affect us right now. Well, the Digital Club Network [which Webcasts live music] might affect us. But the live experience is the live experience. The fact that movie theaters are still happening...that energy, that vibe...it's nostalgic. People don't want to let that go. Not yet." If anything, Pitzer feels that the difficulty making money off music in an age when almost anything can be gotten for free online will lead to a revival of live music. "Bands will tour more," he believes. "And eventually, with pay-per-view [Webcasts], we could exceed capacity every night."
David Hooper, who sells promotional tips to independent musicians via his Web site, www.indiebiz.com, is similarly upbeat about the money-making prospects afforded by the Internet. He believes that given a choice, Americans would rather pay a reasonable fee for their entertainment in exchange for easy access. "Never underestimate the laziness of the American people," he laughs. "We can't even return our videos on time." Last year, as an experiment, Hooper and a friend tried to find and download the most recent albums by *NSync and Britney Spears, to see how convenient and listenable "free music" could be. He says that the downloads took two hours, the quality was poor, and some of the songs abruptly cut off. Getting gouged at a record store would've been more fruitful.
At the same time, Hooper argues that pirating is simply a part of how the Internet operates now, and it helps keep prices fair for consumers. "AOL used to charge $1 a minute and people had to pay like $800 a month, so folks were pirating [the service]. Now that it's $10-a-month flat rate, it's easier for people to pay than to steal." Hooper has even thought of the best way to get people to pay for the music they can now get for free: "The average American spends $4.50 a month on music. It's a $40-billion-a-year industry. Well, what if we gave everybody access to everything in a stream for $12.95 a month. We've tripled our money! Give it to 'em on a cell phone. Once we make it idiot-proof -- once we put it on TV, say -- that'll be the future. Make it cordless, put it in cars, into gyms....
"Do you know why TV shows have live bands?" he continues. "Because of the [musicians'] unions. People were furious when recorded music came around." The furor over online music is the same sort of thing, Hooper suggests: a response to the fact that new technology interferes with what have come to be reliable revenue streams. He adds that he's used Napster and similar services, although only for listening, not for burning -- "I also pay for shareware; it's a karmic thing" -- and that the easy access to a wide variety of songs "has gotten me excited about new music."
Still, Hooper acknowledges that it's not really post-collegiate Web surfers like himself that the music industry is worried about. "Five-year-olds who haven't been socialized to buy CDs, what will they be doing in 10 years?" he wonders. But Hooper sounds a confident note, asserting that "we'll have the royalties figured out by then." Perhaps MP3.com offers the best model of this, offering free downloads for the curious as well as a service that allows users to pay a nominal fee to have a real CD by a band they like. Or perhaps recorded music will always be free and musicians will find some new way to make money at their trade, just as the old bandleaders learned to stop relying on radio and TV performances for their daily bread.
Pitzer and Hooper represent a younger, newer generation of entrepreneur. But plenty of artists fall into a different demographic altogether. Take Eminent Records, which boasts a roster of folk and country acts who appeal more to sophisticates than to rebellious teens with cutting-edge hardware. Eminent president Steve Wilkison doesn't have to worry much about online music piracy, but he says he'd love it if tech-heads were swapping MP3 files of his artists. The added attention, he points out, would be worth any potential lost revenue. "For most of the artists we're working with," being sampled on the Internet "would be very beneficial to helping them widen their audience.
"I come to this as a fan," he adds. "I find at least in my own personal experience that if I come across something that I like, then I'll buy it. Back in the '70s, we'd tape songs off the radio, and it rarely interfered with us buying the albums." As to the question of whether increased access to music means that young people burn out on their favorite musicians more quickly, Wilkison attributes that trend more to the disposability of our on-the-go-culture. But he also blames the major labels: "I think it's a reflection of record labels' inability to help establish artists as artists."
Ultimately, Wilkison isn't too worried about the future. If record sales go down, ticket sales might go up, or merchandise sales might. "The question is not just how many sales [an artist] is losing," he says, "but does it translate into sales somewhere else?"
It's understandable that musicians who already have lucrative careers would be panicked about what's going to happen to their royalty checks over the next decade, but what about artists who are still on their way up, who consider themselves as much music fans as musicians?
Adam Pawlowski of the rock band Bathtub Heroes has mixed feelings. He says, "I used Napster to find some out-of-print and import records. I think it is -- was -- a fine sampling tool, but I was really bothered by the overall sound quality -- too compressed, too spotty. And the idea of people going into each other's computers to lift files...that's just plain scary, isn't it?"
The Obscure's Mike Gogola, who works on robot design by day, is naturally more forgiving: "I felt that Napster being shut down was inevitable, which is a shame, because Napster is a lot of fun. Where else could you get a copy of the Transformers theme song or Leonard Nimoy's version of 'If I Had a Hammer'? Then again, MP3s sound like shit, so it's no great loss, I guess. As a local artist, my worries about online music piracy are nonexistent. I can't get enough people to pirate our stuff! I suppose that theoretically there's a line drawn in the sand where you go from wanting everyone to hear your music to wanting everyone to pay for your music, but we're certainly nowhere near that point."
Kenny Alphin, leader of luvjOi, is on that same wavelength. He has no problem giving his music away -- he gives his band's CD away free at every show. "I just love the idea of people hearing our music in whatever manner they are exposed to it," he says. "And I would like to think that the music is good enough that people would want to pay something for it sooner or later, knowing that it's the only way the artist will be able to continue doing it. Basically, the whole cybermusic thing is way too much to think about.... We just want to make music by whatever means and have fun."
Val Strain's band SparkleDrive is signed to a subsidiary of a major label, which made the local rock quartet's music available online first, before selling it in brick-and-mortar stores. Strain believes the whole controversy just re-raises the oldest debate in the arts. "Basically, I think it's maybe sticky evidence of how tricky it is to blend art with commerce," she says. "Art will roll forward -- it has to. If it's painters, [they] just want people to see and connect with what they've painted. Likewise with writers, guitarists, drummers: First it's the creating, and then it's the 'gotta-connecting.'
"One hundred percent, I can see why artists are thrilled to have their music listened to -- for free -- by many. But...I can totally understand why artists, not trying to be greedy, just trying to survive doing their art, would worry that Napster could send them back to their day jobs where they wouldn't have the time they need to create."
But just as artists need to create, so do consumers need to consume. So isn't it logical to assume that lowering the barriers between the two can only be beneficial to both? If artists withhold their work for fear of not getting paid, then the consumer will offer whatever money it takes to get access to it. If the online music distribution revolution means that record labels are no longer viable entities, it doesn't necessarily mean that the music business shuts down. It may just mean that it reconfigures.
The court ruling against Napster hasn't stopped online piracy, since the bulk of file-swapping is far enough underground that it takes insider knowledge to "get the goods," so to speak. But obviously, driving the act further underground assures that the casual Web surfer won't find it quite so easy to steal. Happy Cow, for one, says that he can still find stuff, but it's not what it used to be (and besides, his interest is waning).
What has happened, though, is that the very fear of piracy has raised all manner of new questions for the music industry -- about how to make money off music in the 21st century, and about whether the artists are ever going to see any of that money. Even in the days when a music fan could get excited about 12 records for a penny, the great deal was made possible because record clubs paid a lower royalty rate to the musicians whose work they sold so cheaply. To most artists, getting ripped off by pirating fans is nothing new -- they've been getting ripped off by their labels for years. And there's a fear that the music industry's drive to stamp out piracy is really a drive to control the potential revenue stream from online music, and to assure that it stays at a trickle for the music-makers.
So what happens next may be up to the consumer. If the record business doesn't eventually start charging more reasonably, the next generation of music buyers may increasingly start to look to the Internet for its music. At the same time, musicians will realize they don't need record labels when they can go directly to the fan. And if that happens, there may be a true revolution in what people listen to, how they get it, and who counts the money at the end of the day.