The Anti-Christ Has All The Best Tunes

Posted by in journalism, music, review

The P2P revolu­tion is like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk all rolled into one highly com­pressed file, by Mark Simpson

Sean Fanning

 (Independent on Sunday, August 2001)

Perhaps the best thing about digital music is that it doesn’t only make listen­ing to music more con­veni­ent and less irk­some: it actu­ally does part of the tire­some job of listen­ing for you.

ISO-MPEG Audio-Layer-3 — mer­ci­fully shortened to MP3 — is the digital file format for music exchanged on the Internet and very pos­sibly the acronym of doom for the record industry. It is a form of extreme algorithmic com­pres­sion of sound files that uses “psy­choacous­tic” mod­els that account for what listen­ers actu­ally notice when they hear music or other sounds. “Unnecessary” data is stripped away to make the file as small as pos­sible to facil­it­ate easier stor­age or upload­ing and down­load­ing. In other words, MP3 anti­cip­ates and inter­prets mu­sic for the listener before she or he actu­ally hears it.

Of course, this job used to be per­formed by record com­pan­ies, with their A&R men and mar­ket­ing depart­ments. But, like so many before them, they appear to have been auto­mated out of a job—dis­pensed with by algorithms, the Internet, and a bunch of geeky kids in their bed­rooms. A whole class of inter­me­di­ar­ies and author­it­ies have been liquidated.

The Internet has often been com­pared to Gutenberg in its im­portance. However, after read­ing John Alderman’s detailed account of the online music revolu­tion, Sonic Boom: Napster, P2p and the Battle for The Future Of Music, John Alderman, I have a hunch it’s more like Gutenberg plus Protestantism plus Punk—all at once, in a highly ‘com­pressed’ form.

Thanks to the per­sonal com­puter and the Internet, every man is now at home with his god—downloading The Sex Pistols’ EMI. The cor­rupt, uncool suits and cas­socks who used to inter­cede have been swept aside and the Word can be enjoyed dir­ectly and free from dis­tor­tion, com­pressed by pure, clean math­em­at­ics, not dogma. The free ex­change of information—which is all that digital music amounts to in cyberspace—is the credo of what one might call the Nettist Movement: the true believ­ers in the web and everything it represents.

To many Nettists, any­one who attempts to stand in the way of this Reformation Superhighway is the Papist Antichrist, or the fas­cist re­gime. And of course this means any­one who doesn’t share their holy zeal—anyone who is non-Nettist. Record com­pan­ies are about as non-Nettist as you can get. After all, they have most to lose from the free exchange of digital music. All their fright­fully expens­ive CD print­ing presses, dis­tri­bu­tion deals and back cata­logues melt at the press of a but­ton in someone’s bed­room. If indul­gences no longer have to be bought but can be plucked from the air instead, then where is the tem­poral wealth and power of the record busi­ness to come from?

For the record com­pan­ies, the lead­ers of the MP3 revolu­tion are seen as heretics who have to be made examples of; burnt at the legal stake so that oth­ers may not be temp­ted to stray. Against the cries for info free­dom, their law­yers invoke the Mystery of copy­right. Digitising music, just as print­ing the Bible in German did, puts it within the grasp—and control—of the laity. And like the lead­ers of the Counter-Reformation, they see them­selves as act­ing in the interests of the people they burn.

You think I exag­ger­ate? You think I take this Reformation, Counter-Reformation meta­phor too far? Well, just listen to Edgar Bronfman Jr., heir to the mighty if not exactly holy Roman Seagram Empire, quoted here by Alderman: “I am war­ring against the cul­ture of the Internet, threat­en­ing to depop­u­late Silicon Valley as I move a Roman legion or two of Wall Street law­yers to lit­ig­ate. I have done so… not to at­tack the Internet and its cul­ture but for its bene­fit and to pro­tect it”.

Is Shawn Fanning, the boy who at nine­teen foun­ded Napster, the fam­ous MP3 file-sharing “peer-2-peer” online ser­vice, a Luther for our times? And is Napster his Wittenberg Theses, nailed to the door of the music industry? For a while, in our accel­er­ated cul­ture, it looked that way. Twelve months after the launch of Napster in June 1999, there were over 200,000 souls pray­ing in his church nightly. By the end of 2000 there were over 50 mil­lion registered users and Fanning was a very fam­ous young man indeed; his crim­in­ally young, beatific face shin­ing out from the cover of magazines.

But Fanning was no ideo­logue or evan­gel­ical; merely an American boy who saw a need which he believed his soft­ware could fill. From his time spent chat­ting on the Net, he knew that people were eager to trade music files, but find­ing good music was the prob­lem. He joined with two online pals, only slightly older than him­self, to solve this with smart code. To­gether they wrote the Napster pro­gram, which allowed users to share files by plug­ging their com­puters, in effect, into a giant, global network.

Because Napster hos­ted no music itself (the files were stored on user’s com­puters and traded), it was hoped by Fanning et al that they would be free from any taint of blas­phemy and heresy in the form of copy­right viol­a­tions. They were very wrong. In the open­ing blast of what was to prove a mer­ci­less bar­rage, the fear­some Recording Industry Associa­tion of America filed a copy­right law­suit against Napster in Decem­ber 1999, just six months after it had launched.

And who could blame them? For the record industry Napster was a dis­aster of, well, bib­lical pro­por­tions. Practically a whole gen­eration of col­lege kids who didn’t even have to pay for the col­lege com­puters or the Internet con­nec­tions they down­loaded the MP3 files with, stopped buy­ing CDs. Not only was Napster free, Napster was easier than going to a record store and it was even easier than order­ing CDs online., an e-tailer of digital music, was reduced to giv­ing away MP3 play­ers (worth $150) to any­one who bought just $25 worth of music.

A year and a half on, under the epic weight of vari­ous law­suits and in­junctions brought by the record industry and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, who fam­ously dis­covered that three unfin­ished ver­sions of a song he had been work­ing on had been traded on Napster (along with his entire back cata­logue), the Church of Shawn Fanning is not what it was. Napster got into bed with record giant Bertlesmann— one of the few record com­pan­ies to respond to the MP3 revolu­tion with any­thing other than pub­lic burnings—in an attempt to turn Napster into a legal, main­stream, subscription-only ser­vice which, cru­cially, paid roy­al­ties to performers.

The issue of intel­lec­tual copy­right and reward­ing artists is a thorny one and not so easy to dis­miss as “record com­pany greed.” Ulrich is cer­tainly not the only pro­fes­sional rock and roll rebel to take indig­nant offence at the “crimin­al­ity” of online file trad­ing. Ultimately though, the feel­ings of artists or even record com­pan­ies may not count for very much. In a sense, file trad­ing is what the Internet was designed for—and it was also designed to sur­vive some­thing even more destruct­ive than a music com­pany law­yer: nuc­lear war.

There is per­haps a tad too much jar­gon in Sonic Boom for the IT agnostic, and the nar­ra­tion doesn’t always quite match the raci­ness of the title or the import of the revolu­tion it docu­ments, but it’s a valu­able, insight­ful book for any­one inter­ested in where our cul­ture is headed.

The Nettist Movement itself con­tin­ues its onward march undaun­ted. Napster and Fanning may have recan­ted, but most of his 50 mil­lion dis­ciples that Bertlesmann hoped to con­vert into more ortho­dox cus­tom­ers have left and are now pray­ing at lesser known online P2P sites. And there are always new, more con­vin­cing Luthers. Programmer Ian Clarke, for instance. He believes vehe­mently that inform­a­tion should be free. But he isn’t going to try too hard to con­vince you with words; he’s won the argu­ment already with code by design­ing a sys­tem called Freenet which allows users to post and retrieve files with com­plete anonym­ity. Unlike Napster, there is no cent­ral server—this is a church which really has no walls and whose con­greg­a­tion is invisible.

Clarke likes to tell report­ers that he couldn’t take Freenet down if someone put a gun to his head. Which is all very well, but Alderman doesn’t tell us what Clarke would do if Edgar Bronfman Jr. sent a Roman legion of Wall Street law­yers after him.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2001