The Heavenly Jukebox

Rampant music piracy may hurt musicians less than they fear. The real threat—to listeners and, conceivably, democracy itself—is the music industry's reaction to it

A little while ago I heard that the future of music was being decided in a nondescript office suite above a bank in San Mateo, California. I couldn't get there in time, so I asked a friend to check it out. A crowd was milling in front of the entrance when he arrived. My friend parked illegally and called me on his cell phone. There are twenty or thirty television cameras, he said, and a lectern with a dozen microphones. Also lots of police officers. I asked about the loud noise in the background. "That," he explained, "is people smashing compact discs with sledgehammers."

The compact discs contained music by the rock band Metallica. Three weeks earlier Metallica had sued a now-notorious Internet start-up called Napster, which is based on the fourth floor of the bank building. (The name comes from the founder's moniker in adolescence.) Far from being the colossus that its media prominence might lead one to expect, Napster is a surprisingly small outfit: it consists mainly of a Web site, about thirty-five hip, slightly disheveled employees, and a hundred or so of the powerful computers known as servers. By connecting to these computers with special software, Napster members can search one another's hard drives for music files, downloading gratis any songs they discover.

As the furor over Napster suggests, the opportunity to share music quickly and without charge has been greeted with more enthusiasm by listeners than by the music industry. Although the company's music-swapping software has only just been officially released, the service already has about 20 million regular users, and the tally is rising every day. Countless other people use Napster's brethren; the company is but the most prominent of many free-music services on the Internet. The result, in Metallica's opinion, is an outrageous pirate's bacchanalia—millions of pieces of music shuttling around the Net uncontrolled. The group filed suit, according to its drummer, Lars Ulrich, "to put Napster out of business."

I asked my friend to visit Napster's headquarters that day because I knew that Ulrich, Metallica's lawyer, and several burly guys in T-shirts were driving to San Mateo in a black sport-utility vehicle. In the SUV were thirteen boxes full of printouts listing the user names of 335,435 Napsterites who, the band said, had traded Metallica songs during the previous weekend. Ulrich and his entourage planned to dump the boxes in the company's tiny, cluttered foyer. The people with the sledgehammers planned to shout unflattering remarks while this was taking place. Suddenly a compact man with high-tide hair and shades came to the podium: Lars Ulrich. My friend held up his phone a few feet from the drummer's face, but I could barely hear Ulrich. The catcalls were too loud.

"You suck, Lars! You sellout!"

"This is not about pounding the fans, this is about Napster ..."

"Then why are you busting them? Have you ever even used Napster, Lars?"

Hooting laughter almost drowned out Ulrich's response. In an online chat with fans the previous day, Ulrich had admitted that he had never actually tried Napster. Indeed, he said later, his experience with the Internet was limited to using America Online "a couple of times to check some hockey scores." Nonetheless, his suspicions, however unfounded on experience, were entirely warranted as a matter of fact.

Within the music industry it is widely believed that much of the physical infrastructure of music—compact discs, automobile cassette-tape players, shopping-mall megastores—is rapidly being replaced by the Internet and a new generation of devices with no moving parts. By 2003, according to the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Investment Research Group, listeners will rarely if ever drive to Tower Records for their music. Instead they will tap into a vast cloud of music on the Net. This heavenly jukebox, as it is sometimes called, will hold the contents of every record store in the world, all of it instantly accessible from any desktop. And that will be just the beginning. Edgar Bronfman Jr., the head of Universal, the world's biggest music company, predicted in a speech in May that soon "a few clicks of your mouse will make it possible for you to summon every book ever written in any language, every movie ever made, every television show ever produced, and every piece of music ever recorded." In this vast intellectual commons nothing will ever again be out of print or impossible to find; every scrap of human culture transcribed, no matter how obscure or commercially unsuccessful, will be available to all.

Bronfman detests Napster. His speech likened the company to both slavery and Soviet communism. But its servers constitute the nearest extant approximation of his vision of a boundless sea of digital culture. While Ulrich spoke, I logged on to Napster. More than 100,000 people were on the company's machines, frolicking about in terabytes of music. "True fans of the talent are the ones who respect our rights," the drummer was saying. I typed in search terms: Mahler, Mingus, Method Man, Metallica ... all were free for the taking. And all were freely being taken—users couldn't put a nickel in the machine even if they wanted to. Little wonder that the thought of such systems spreading to films, videos, books, and magazines has riveted the attention of artists, writers, and producers.

"Down in front! Down in front! ... Metallica sucks!"

"Hey, Lars!"—a reporter. "Are you able to quantify the revenue lost?"

"It's not about revenue."

"Yeah? What's it about, then?"

In the short run the struggle is for control of the heavenly jukebox. Technophiles claim that the major labels, profitable concerns today, will rapidly cease to exist, because the Internet makes copying and distributing recorded music so fast, cheap, and easy that charging for it will effectively become impossible. Adding to the labels' fears, a horde of dot-coms, rising from the bogs of San Francisco like so many stinging insects, is trying to hasten their demise. Through their trade association, the Recording Industry Association of America, the labels are fighting back with every available weapon: litigation, lobbying, public relations, and, behind the trenches, jiggery-pokery with technical standards. Caught in the middle are musicians, Metallica among them, who believe that their livelihoods will soon be menaced by their own audiences.

At stake in the long run is the global agora: the universal library-movie theater-television-concert hall-museum on the Internet. The legal and social precedents set by Metallica v. Napster—and half a dozen other e-music lawsuits—are likely to ramify into film and video as these, too, move online. When true electronic books, e-magazines, and e-newspapers become readily available, their rules of operation may well be shaped by the creation of the heavenly jukebox. Music, according to a National Research Council report released last November, is the "canary in the digital coal mine."

This is unfortunate. Silicon Valley denizens often refer generically to writers, painters, filmmakers, journalists, actors, photographers, designers, and musicians as "content providers," as if there were no important differences among them. Yet the music industry—tangled in packages of rights that exist nowhere else, burdened by the peculiar legacies of earlier conflicts—is not like other culture industries, and digital technology is exerting different forces on it. Compared with writers and filmmakers, musicians are both more imperiled by the Internet and better able to slip past the threat. The music industry seems to have less room to maneuver. In consequence, it has been pushing for decisive judicial and legislative action. The Internet will become a principal arena for the clash of ideas that the Founders believed necessary for democracy. Allowing the travails of a single industry—no matter how legitimate its concerns—to decide the architecture of that arena would be a folly that could take a long time to undo.

"It's not about our bank accounts, it's about the thousands and thousands of artists out there who aren't fortunate enough to have the—"

"Radio is free! What about radio?"

"We have the right to control our music!"

"Fuck you, Lars. It's our music too!"

Presented by

Charles C. Mann, an Atlantic contributing editor, has been writing for the magazine since 1984. His recent books include 1491, based on his March 2002 cover story, and 1493.

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