The Man Can't Stop Our Music

If you want to know where a Silicon Valley-ite stands in the ongoing war for the soul of the Internet, just ask him or her what the buzzword is these days. Many will tell you it is "B2B," a backslapping shorthand for e-schemes directed to the "business to business" market. Innumerable B2B start-ups are being launched these days, hoping to scoop up a chunk of the vast intramural cash companies pay each other for supplies and services. The movement to B2B assumes a maturing Net, with all that Wild West stuff finally changing to electronic suburbia.

But those who believe that the Internet revolution is still a seething, evolving, paradigm-busting phenomenon will offer a different buzzword: "Napster." This strange term refers to a certain digital music-distribution program, the start-up company built around that software and the full-blown frenzy triggered by its wild popularity. Just as the conventional wisdom was postulating a future dominated by the giants of e-commerce and media convergence, out of nowhere we have Napster, engaging the passion of millions and enraging an entire industry that perceives it as a threat to its cozy existence. Hey... that's just like the previous "this changes everything" advances that have come to characterize this dizzying age.

Napster's concept seems simple, but of course only a 19-year-old mind could have invented it. Certainly no one who grew up in analog days--when selecting new songs involved carefully dropping a needle onto a flat black plastic pizza--would have even considered the concept of obtaining just about any piece of music instantly. And it took a true Internet kid, Northeastern University freshman Shawn Fanning, to figure out that the way to do it was to allow anybody free and total access to everybody else's music collection. That's what happens with Napster (dubbed after Fanning's childhood nickname). You download the program (no charge, naturalmente) and simply type in the sounds you crave--Jerry Garcia tunes, Gregorian chants or "Memo From Turner" from that Mick Jagger movie soundtrack. Napster lists what's available on MP3 format on thousands of hard drives. Invariably Napster finds your quarry on somebody's drive in Cleveland or Katmandu, and with a click of the mouse it's on your drive, and others can get it from you. You can also "rip" the songs on your CDs and make them available to fellow Napsters. Or make your own music and put it online.

Not surprisingly, Napster has bent some people severely out of shape. Last December the Recording Industry Association of America, representing the big music companies, sued Fanning's company for copyright violations. (It will be interesting to see if the courts rule that any piracy charges should be borne by the individuals who share the tunes with their fellow Napster-oids.) Also, a number of colleges are unhappy that their Napster-loving students are eating up as much as half their Net bandwidth, as MP3 file swapping has become to today's youth what dope smoking was to digitally deprived boomers.

Obviously, Napster is capable of raising a lot of hell. Still, I think that it has the potential to have a salutary role as both intellectual-property and bandwidth issues evolve. The broader digital-music boom will inevitably force the music business to migrate to new business models, and the Napster threat will only hasten such solutions. I bet that when the lawsuits stop flying, we'll probably wind up with much more music in people's ears, with artists and music companies reaping some sort of electronic payments; the implementation inevitably will be imperfect, but to everyone's benefit. And as far as bandwidth goes, the insatiable demand on behalf of Napster users is a stern reminder to those in charge of data pipes that the Internet has always been, and should remain, a two-way conduit where users should have the power to publish and sell as well as to consume.

But the biggest impact of the Napster Effect is yet to come. From early on, Shawn Fanning saw his program as "a cool way to build community," and its Triffid-like growth has blessed his nascent 30-person firm with a potential user population that may one day rival even Net giants like the AOL-owned ICQ message service. "It took ICQ 14 months to get to where we are in only six months," boasts Napster CEO Eileen Richardson. Meanwhile, the Napster software is beefing up user-based features (U2U?) like instant messaging, chat and personal profiles. Building blocks of a mini-online service, perhaps? Further growth could come as the Napster concept is expanded from music: there's nothing to stop the system from enabling people to swap photos, term papers, novels and even movies.

One company painfully aware of the Napster buzzword is AOL. Last week its executives were apparently caught by surprise when one of its subsidiaries, Nullsoft, released a beta version of a Napster-like program. Since AOL is due to become the world's biggest music company after the Time Warner purchase, this wouldn't do; so, in the ominous passive-voice confirmation of an AOL spokes-person, the program "was taken down." But AOL has plenty more to worry about than MP3 swappers pirating Madonna tunes. Napster, and the other grass-roots distribution companies that inevitably will follow, may be pirating something else: the hearts, minds and hard disks of a whole generation of Net users.