Monday, February 25, 2002

CAUGHT IN A PRISON OF THEIR OWN MAKING: You wonder if the record industry are starting to wish they'd left Napster alone, since the fall-out from their initial attempts to silently unplug the service just keeps smearing their faces with more and more chocolate mousse.
Firstly, of course, the initial attempts merely publicised the service. Driven on by Metallica's moaning, what had been until then a quiet little backwater on the web suddenly became a main street. By the time the mainstream press picked up the tale, it was clear that the response to the label's "Do you realise these sites giving away free music are costing us money?" question was not "Blimey, that's awful; we'll stop" but, more frequently "What's that you say? There's free music?" Napster relied on word of mouth; the industry's over-reaction was a scream.
Then, with the number of users shooting up, the labels started to make themselves look ridiculous. To hear the industry that will never use a shirt if a bra-top will do, the people who embrace the cred of "Parental Advisory" warn that using Napster may bring you into contact with pornographers was like Snickers raising the dangers of peanut allergies for people eating Fruit & Nut.
By the time the law managed to nail two planks over the door of Napster, enough people were switched on to file-swapping to make any subsequent peer-to-peer service successful; having seen the points where legal pressure had been placed on the old service, new models of working were created to route round them.
Obviously, the labels did succeed in separating many users from file-sharing, but what good did it do them? In the year that Napster was plugged in, record sales rose. Since the service was banned, sales have fallen. It seems that maybe there was something in the claim that creating communities of people excitedly swapping tracks, names and recommendations had a knock-on effect upwards on sales.
And now, there's another snake crawling out of the basket. Even as labels are in one court trying to force the likes of Courtney Love to stick to contracts the artists think unfair, a judge in their action against Napster has tapped a pencil on his teeth and said "You know, I'm not so sure you guys actually do own the copyright on these tracks anyway." It all hinges on whether artists are considered to be employees of the labels, and as such obliged to surrender copyright automatically to their labels. Since most artists aren't contracted in that way, there's a very plausible legal theory that while the EMIs own the actual sound recordings, the songs themselves should really be considered the property of the artist - and since, as any fule kno, that its the song, not the sounds, where the money is, this could have considerable implications for the music industry. Wouldn't it be so Alanis if, in trying to stop a few hundred college kids swapping Blink 182 alums they'd probably have wound up buying on CD anyway, the record companies had simply managed to destroy the only thing that they actually had to work with?
One other effect of Napster: Believe it or not, the record labels were shocked to discover that when people looked for tracks online, they typed the name of songs or bands into the search engines. Bemused that nobody looking for a Cranberries record typed 'Island" into google, the labels suddenly realised that their precious brands didn't mean shit to anyone - which, of course, meant that once they got their online act together, there'd be little value in those brands. Hence, it's as direct consequence of Napster that when Universal records advertise on TV now, they carry little "Universal" logos at the start, in the way their film division products always have. The changes wrought by technology are not always seismically cataclysmic.

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