MP3s forever?

Whatever you think about Napster, it’s already changing music for good. MP3s forever? Whatever you think about Napster, it’s already changing music for good.

God bless Napster. First free music, and now free entertainment in the daily headlines. How else would we learn that Sen. Orrin Hatch writes songs on the side? (I wonder if they could be found on Napster!) Putting aside the legal and moral issues for a moment, the great thing about Napster is that it’s fun. It’s sort of like eBay in sheer scale–a great, teeming flea market that has everything you want and plenty of things you’d never dreamed you wanted until you stumbled across them. It’s as if everyone in your city got together and dumped out their music collections in one place. I don’t have a CD burner and haven’t downloaded more than a handful of MP3s from Napster (I went online to hear songs by three bands I’d heard about, and bought two CDs as a result). But I’ll miss the “gee-whiz” thrill of getting on. It’s a shame that one of the things that’s been lost in the shuffle is just how cool this peer-to-peer thing is.

On that note, the most interesting thing about the ongoing Napster wars is not the fight, per se, but how its outcome may change everything we know today. I have to wonder how well the music labels will do in launching their own online download ventures such as MusicNet and Duet. Music stores, after all, are not organized by label. Will the average consumer go to Time Warner’s MusicNet for Madonna, and then click over to Sony’s Duet service for Destiny’s Child? Or maybe they’ll just go to MTV, which has just arranged download deals with all of the major labels.

Will users pay a dollar or more just to download one song? I think the answer will depend largely on how comprehensive and convenient the services are. How quickly can I find individual songs by musicians I’m interested in? Will these sites have everything from mega-stars to acts that have sold fewer than 10,000 CDs? Let’s say I want to assemble 60 minutes’ worth of singles. Will I be able to include songs from movie soundtracks? What if I’m seeking out-of-print, reissued, or imported tracks? Oh, and by the way, I want to be able to listen to my selections before I buy them, just as I might in any CD store. The logistics of converting the real-life music-hunting experience to the online realm are quite daunting. The industry won’t work out even a fraction of these details by the end of the year, despite prodding from Congress.

Nevertheless, Napster’s wake-up call to the music industry is already affecting what the new world might look like. Those in the business of music retail have realized this and are lobbying Congress for their cut of digital-music sales. Their place on the Net seems far less assured than their place in the corner store. Next month, Charley Pride’s new release will unleash “copy-proof” CD technology upon some unsuspecting fans who may discover that the disc won’t play in their particular brand of CD player.

Speaking of CDs, who can envision what our next music format may be? Probably someday soon we’ll use our computers as part of our stereo system. In the house, car, or on the street, we’ll have digital music players. But will the “thing” we once associated with music–the record or the CD, packaged with art and lyrics–just disappear? Will we just carry around generic, erasable CD-ROMs or DVDs in order to transport MP3s from one location to the next? Perhaps we won’t even need those–perhaps whatever we drive or carry will be directly wired up to our central MP3 repository. Going from vinyl to the cassette tape to the CD is one thing. But getting rid of the “product” altogether is something else entirely–the product is what the entire music industry has built itself around. Perhaps the industry will then be the only thing left, having stripped away some of the expenses of supporting touring musicians. Or perhaps it will have freed music for good.

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