The Hittman Chronicle

Taking a Napster

A few weeks ago I decided to give Napster a try. When I downloaded it I had about four MP3 files on my computer. Twenty-four hours later I had over 200 songs taking up 750 megs of hard drive space. The effort required was trivial.

Napster is a free application that makes trading MP3 files almost effortless. When you load the program it connects you to a Napster server. You can then share files with anyone else who is connected at the moment. Some people only have a few files, others have hundreds. Typically you'll have access to about a half million files. That doesn't mean a half million songs, because there are lots and lots of duplicates. You search for an artist or song, and within a few seconds Napster presents you with a list that includes each song's name, file size, bit rate, and the speed of the other persons connection. You can sort on any of these criteria by clicking the top of the column. Pick as many files as you want, click the "start download" button, and the music is on it's way to your hard drive, all without putting a dime in the pocket of the record companies.

Which has the record companies really, really pissed off. The RIAA, whose primary job is siccing lawyers on anyone who ever acquires any piece of music without squirting money into the maw of their member companies, has been suing Napster since it hit the streets. Although recording industry sales were up 5% in 1998, and 8% last year, they claim this is costing them hundreds of millions of dollars. Music fans are so deeply concerned about these losses they respond by laughing until stuff comes out of their noses.

Now individual bands are getting into the act. Metallica, who credits fans trading bootleg tapes as the reason for their early success, has sued Napster, and universities that don't block it, for copyright infringement. Lars Ulrich, the group's drummer, said "It is ... sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is." Here's a free clue for you, Bucko: Get over yourself. It's only rock and roll.

This Wednesday (May 10) they upped the ante. They presented Napster with a list of 317,377 users who, they claimed, were sharing illegal Metallica files. They demanded that Napster cancel each account and block the users access. Napster complied, immediately and permanently reducing Metallica's fan base by 317,377, plus a few million other fans who don't use Napster but now suddenly realize their idols are little more than aging wheeze bags trying to squeeze the last few dollars out of a dying cash cow.

The formula for their losses is ef = 317,377 + of + popf,. where ef is Ex-Fans, also referred to as Enraged Fans and of is Other Fans, fans who did not get kicked off Napster but who are still outraged by the band's actions. popf stands for Pissed Off Potential Fans. The value of popf is calculated with the formula popf = aa/bt * bf(sc): Angry Adolescents / Bad Taste * Bottom Feeders (Scum Sucking). Note that with these formulas some ex-fans were never fans in the first place, a phenomenon we don't quite understand. We're waiting for Stephen Hawking to return our call. The value of ef has not been determined exactly, but scientists and mathematicians agree it is much higher than 317,377.

My first draft of this article contained the line "Metallica is spending their money on lawyers instead of guitar lessons to learn a fourth chord." But I realized this was unfair, because I had never really listened to them. So I loaded up Napster, downloaded a couple of their tunes, and was surprised to find I liked them. Their version of "Whiskey in the Jar" was especially fun. It's a traditional song featuring a murdering thief complaining that women are untrustworthy. It's usually performed acoustically, the pretty melody contrasting the crudeness of the character. Their version was quite different, and quite good. Good enough to buy, if I wasn't so disgusted with them.

Remember way back, when they used to be musicians?And I'm not the only one disgusted. Their web site was hacked, and replaced with a single page that read "Leave Napster Alone." The Internet is full of conversations among former fans who are disavowing the group and promising to never buy another CD or attend another concert. Banned Napster users trying to open new accounts with user names that insult the band are finding every combination of "Metallica" and curse words is already in use. (Napster has tried, through registry fiddling, to prevent banned users from signing on again. We're pleased to provide you with instructions to circumvent their restrictions.)

Just a note to Metallica's lawyers - After listening to the songs once or twice, which constitutes fair use, I immediately deleted them. I have no wish to violate your copyright. More importantly, if I had left them there, someone might have downloaded them and liked them enough to buy something from your clients, and I wouldn't want to encourage such behavior.

Dr. Dre intends to take it a step further - he wants to sue everyone who downloaded a copy of his stuff for $100,000 per copy. That's approximately $100,000 more than any of his stuff is worth. Dr. Dre performs rap, an art form that consists of yammering over recordings stolen from real musicians. About the same time he announced his ridiculous lawsuit, he was slapped with a suit for ripping off sounds from George Lucas. Evidently theft is wrong if his fans do it, but OK if he's the thief. I'm safe from his bottom feeders (he's using the same lawyers as Metallica) because I've never downloaded his stuff, considering it to be little more than disco for the tone deaf.

Limp Bizket is taking the opposite approach. They are encouraging their fans to use Napster to pass their music around, especially songs from their newest album. Napster is sponsoring a month long tour of free LB concerts. While I find their music slightly less pleasant than listening to a truck full of empty cans crashing head-on into a truck full of plate glass, I have to tip my hat to their marketing savvy. If they keep treating their fans this well they can look forward to a long career of packed concert halls and best selling CDs.

A fourteen year old downloading the latest Metallica, Dr. Dre or Limp Bizket cut may or may not go out and buy the CD in a week or a month or a year. But if he likes it enough sooner or later he's likely to buy it. An adolescent who can't afford a CD today is only a few years away from becoming a teenager willing to plunk down $75 for a boxed set, or $80 for a concert ticket. Of course, he might be a little less inclined to support artists who sent lawyers after him.

Napster is a very handy tool for checking out unfamiliar artists other people mention or recommend. Often, after a listen or two, I delete them. Other times I end up buying the CD, a CD I wouldn't have bought if a preview was unavailable. And I mean a real preview, not those annoying thirty-second teasers offered on some sites. One of the most common complaints among Napster users is "I'm spending way too much on CDs now."

Like any other search on the Internet, half the fun is finding stuff you weren't looking for. I was looking for Behind Blue Eyes and searched on "Who." I found what I was looking for, but also found The Guess Who, Who Can It Be Now, Who Do You Love, Knights Who Say Ni!, The Theme from Dr. Who, Who Will Stop The Rain, and Who Put the Dick on The Snowman.

Napster's biggest drawback is its lack of depth. The greatest hits of popular bands are easy to find, but the really good stuff, the stuff that is only on the albums, is missing. I've got a nearly complete collection of 10CC albums on vinyl, and would love to have MP3 versions of them to play on my computer. But the only thing out there is Dreadlock Holiday, I'm Not In Love, and The Things We Do for Love, the last two being among their weakest efforts. The wonderfully weird stuff on their albums was much, much better than their hits, but they're not out there. Searches for the good stuff on Queen's Sheer Heart Attack comes up empty. And trying to find MP3 files of UK, so I don't have to drag out my vinyl? Forget it.

I've got tons of old, rare albums that have never made it to CD, or are only available on very overpriced CD imports. I had hoped Napster would help me find MP3 versions, but have been disappointed. I've never seen any Les Dudek there. (What this world needs is more love and Les Dudek.) Jade Warrior and Pavlov's Dog and Good Rats are all missing. There's no Phil Manzanera or Wreckless Eric or City Boy or Dan Hicks. There's a little Steeleye Span, but no Steel Ice Band. Lot's of Richard Pryor, hardly any Maddy Prior. On the other hand I was pleasantly surprised to see how much Tom Waits, John Prine and Richard Thompson is available.

I don't want to sound like I'm justifying pirate music. Artists deserve to be paid. I already own legal copies of nearly all of the MP3s I've collected and will end up buying most of the other ones. I'm not sure exactly how many CDs I own, because I organize them by scattering them in loose piles all over the house, but it's about three hundred. Of those, I have maybe five that are copies someone burned for me. The rest are all legal with royalties paid to the artists (unless the record company screwed them, but we know that never happens). I'm happy to support the artists I enjoy. The argument that music should be free is stupid and short sighted. Almost as stupid and short sighted as attacking those future customers who are passing music back and forth. As I pointed out in the article "Breaking Records," the one bootleg Barenaked Ladies tape a friend gave me resulted in at least a dozen purchases of their CDs.

Napster isn't going to replace anyone's CD collection. If it's left alone, it will result in more artists selling more CDs. But the RIAA and a few myopic musicians seem intent on suing and harassing it out of existence. They may succeed, but it won't do them any good. Napster is already old technology, requiring a server to pass information around, and leaving trails for bottom feeders (lawyers) and mouth breathers (drummers) to follow. Gnutella and Freenet, which require no servers and leave no traces, makes sharing files even more transparent, and doesn't limit people to MP3 files. Lawsuits and harassment will accomplish nothing but angering fans, and that will cost artists and record company weasels far more than if they had just shut up and left everyone alone.

Other Links

This is what happens when people steal an artists music.

Getting around the ban:

Napigator lets you use Napster on non-napster servers.

If you've been banned from Napster these instructions should help you sneak back in. If they don't work, here are several other possible solutions.


May, 2000


© 2000 Dave Hitt

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