Ten years ago this month, Napster filed for bankruptcy. The peer-to-peer filesharing network succumbed to an all-out legal war waged by major record labels, but not before popularizing downloadable digital music and sparking a heated debate about music piracy and its consequences. Today, that argument rages on, at times just as loudly as it did a decade ago.
Last week, a 21-year-old intern at NPR's All Songs Considered unwittingly ignited a heated discussion that sounded like something straight out of 2001. Emily White, a former college radio DJ and music enthusiast, confessed to readers that, despite having a music library containing 11,000 songs, she had only purchased 15 albums in her life and has "never supported physical music as a consumer." Responses to her post have been flying around the Internet ever since.
White's candid admission, which is emblematic of her generation's music consumption habits, provoked a lengthy, scathing response from '90s alt-rock veteran David Lowery, frontman for both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. In it, Lowery questions the morality of White's generation, takes a dig at the "free culture" movement and suggests that music piracy has been responsible for the deaths of cash-strapped musicians.
"On nearly every count your generation is much more ethical and fair than my generation," Lowery wrote in his open letter to White. "Except for one thing. Artist rights."
From there, the debate exploded all over the Internet. Boing Boing editor and author Cory Doctorow, quite naturally, took issue with some of Lowery's claims about the motives and funding of "free culture" advocates. TuneCore's Jeff Price used hard data to illustrate how artists are actually better off today than they were under the old, top-heavy gatekeeper system maintained by major labels. And Steve Albini, the famed and always outspoken producer, dismissed Lowery's critiques, suggesting that he's simply longing for a bygone era in which Lowery happened to prosper.
"As is true every time an industry changes, the people who used to have it easy claim the new way is not just hard for them but fundamentally wrong," Albini wrote. "The reluctance to adapt is a kind of embarrassing nostalgia that glosses over the many sins of the old ways, and it argues for a kind of pity fuck from the market."
Lowery's original criticism goes well beyond illegal downloads and includes Spotify, which he condemns for unfairly compensating artists. Evolver.fm's Eliot Van Buskirk tackled this issue head-on in a thorough post clarifying how Spotify pays labels - and ultimately artists - and why some of the negative reports about this have been off-base. Over the course of a music fan's lifetime, repeatedly streaming an album can actually generate more revenue for the artist than the single purchase of a CD, as Van Buskirk explains.
How the Universal-EMI Merger Ties In
In the background of all of this is a separate but parallel debate going on in the U.S. Capitol building. This week, senators are hearing arguments for and against the proposed acquisition of EMI by Universal Music Group.
Proponents of the merger cite it as necessary to help the recording industry weather ongoing declines that have long been exacerbated by technological disruption of the sort that Lowery bemoans. On the other side of the debate, though, you'll find all the usual concerns that come when one industry's power is consolidated into fewer hands. There's also the issue of how a more concentrated market might impact innovation in the digital music space that is just now emerging.
Is Piracy Really to Blame?
Is piracy to blame for the industry's woes? Partially, but as many have pointed out, the bigger issue is a fundamental shift in the supply and distribution of recorded music, which was forever changed by the Internet. Those changes put an end to the labels' role as the exclusive gatekeeper to the music marketplace, which both devastated their established business models and leveled the playing field enough to allow more artists and businesses to participate.
And yes, the same shifts allowed digital piracy to proliferate. But some argue that the labels didn't exactly do everything they could to prevent that from happening. Several days prior to last week's firestorm, online music entrepreneur Rob Reid made the case in the Wall Street Journal that the labels were hesitant to get on board with legitimate music services during Napster's heyday, and "thereby granted piracy a half-decade monopoly on awesomeness."
It was in this climate, with few legal options as convenient as Napster, that peer-to-peer filesharing services were able to thrive and music-hungry fans such as Emily White came of age.
"What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices," wrote White. "With this new universal database, everyone would have convenient access to everything that has ever been recorded, and performance royalties would be distributed based on play counts."
This isn't unlike one potential version of the future as described by David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard in their 2005 book, The Future of Music: A Manifesto For the Digital Music Revolution.
It's also not far off from where reality actually seems to be headed today, thanks to services including Spotify, Rdio and MOG. That category of streaming service - and the business model that supports it - might still be emerging, but if allowed to flourish, it might satisfy both the Emily Whites and David Lowerys of the world. Hopefully it won't take another decade.