A new book provides the best look yet at the history and future of online music.
The fast-moving world of the Internet and its various file-trading back alleys generally doesn’t make an ideal subject for a book. Due to the lead time required to physically publish a book, timely content is almost invariably is outdated by the time the author’s well-intentioned ideas hit the stores.
A recent exception to this rule is John Alderman’s “Sonic Boom: Napster, MP3 and the New Pioneers of Music”. Not only are its insights and analyses relevant at the moment, but many of them also probably will be for a while to come.
If any journalist is qualified to write this book, it’s Alderman. He first got my attention with these words: “Music distribution over the Internet is inevitable. But the giant industry, with decades-old habits, doesn’t know how to adapt.” Maybe you’ve had the same idea, but Alderman made that statement in Wired more than four years ago, well before the name MP3 made its way into popular consciousness. That prescience lends tremendous credibility to the ideas in “Sonic Boom.”
His primary thesis is at once amusing and pathetic: While virtually every other industry under the sun was embracing the Internet as a means of communication and commerce, most people in the music industry stayed stuck in the mud, refusing even to consider abandoning its outdated sales modes until they were forced to–by which time it was far too late to do so effectively.
One of Alderman’s most interesting points is his contention that it didn’t have to turn out that way. He feels that a few key wrong decisions made in the early days of the public Internet were all that shut the record labels out of the file-sharing explosion. Labels feared the idea of decentralizing the distribution of music, due mostly to their enormous (and then recent) investments in compact-disc manufacturing facilities. An accumulation of such ill-timed blunders is what led to the current straits the industry finds itself in.
But the biggest misstep the industry made was one it had seldom made in the past: its failure to recognize and exploit an enormous generation gap. The Internet and file sharing were innovations that lit a fire under a huge new generation of music and technology lovers, many of whom were inspired toward further innovation. Even when the industry succeeded in shutting down Napster last year, it was a Pyrrhic victory: All it really accomplished was to drive users to a smattering of file-sharing services that were much more difficult to police and persecute.
A gaze into Alderman’s crystal ball should excite music fans and terrify those who have tried to regulate online music. In the future, he writes, the process of exchanging any type of media over broadband connections will be as mundane as making a phone call. The grab-bag utopia that Napster embodied will apply to movies and software as well as music. The only thing that could stop such a scenario, he argues, is that the dearth of revenue in such a free-for-all will scare off any remaining sources of funding.
Books like Alderman’s are good news for online-music enthusiasts, and it’s hard to resist thinking that some elements of big business are starting to get the message, too: Print ads for Apple’s iPod, which can hold 1,000 hours of music, bear the small disclaimer “Don’t steal music.” The way things are going, it’s easy to see those words not as a threat, but as a plea.