The Anti-Christ Has All The Best Tunes

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

grey The Anti Christ Has All The Best Tunes

 (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

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