Napster: old and new

The Socialist Alliance?s general election manifesto makes clear that New Labour ?excludes millions from cultural participation while promoting a corporate-dominated arts and leisure industry?. In other words culture is a site for struggle. As James Bull explains, that includes the global music industry

To coin a phrase, a spectre now haunts the global music industry. Admittedly, it is far from that of communism, but is nonetheless something that threatens to shatter the old foundations of the mega-capitalist corporations, which shape, monopolise and control the traffic of music.

It is something that throws up doubts in the minds of bourgeois journalists, commentators and analysts, whose discomfort is palpable at the thought of the music industry?s extinction in its current form. It threatens to erode the concept of property at the heart of music?s commerciality and the bizarre and blatantly unfair relationship that currently exists between artists and their record labels. The spectre is, as no doubt some will have guessed, the MP3, along with its partner in arms, Shawn Fanning?s Napster, and over recent months there have been concerted attempts to quash it.

No doubt most people will have heard reference to both in the media recently. However, I feel a brief explanation of MP3 is required. The MP3, or ?Mpeg layer three?, is simply a computer file format that compresses audio into a small space, allowing it to be stored or sent over the internet easily, and in great quantity. To illustrate the vast difference in sophistication between the MP3 and older formats, we only have to compare it with Microsoft?s WAV, the intended benchmark audio format for Windows-based computers.

An average five-minute track in WAV format would take up in excess of 50 megabytes, the equivalent of about 35 floppy disks. Such a file would take around four hours to download from the internet - clearly not a very practical proposition. The same song in MP3 form, on the other hand, would barely be more than five megabytes in size, and would take around 20 minutes to download. For the first time, with the arrival of MP3, it became possible to send music around the globe and reproduce it in minutes. The MP3 revolution had begun, but as yet its potential proliferation had gone unnoticed. Slowly but surely, music began to circulate online, but, of course, it was only a matter of time before copyright law was brought into the equation.

Napster, the US-based MP3 file-swapping service, is now embroiled in a lengthy and ongoing legal dispute. The service allows internet-users to exchange MP3 files in a ?buddy-to-buddy? system, whereby one individual can download a song from another?s computer, and everyone else can download files from theirs in return. Napster does not hold any music files itself, but simply provides the means to an end, allowing users to search for the content they want, and allowing a safe, anonymous environment in which to exchange it. Profits are secured from advertising, leaving the service free of charge for the user.

Not surprisingly, with millions of copyrighted files swarming through cyberspace over the past few months, bypassing the corporate bank accounts of Sony and EMI - there have been heavyweight counter-moves and counter-propaganda. A recent hearing in the US saw Justice Marilyn Hall Patel condemn Napster, describing it as a ?monster? - a most interesting use of language indeed. This monster must, say the courts, now be safely caged, and eventually, insist music industry spokespersons, be milked for its full profit value. Napster now looks set to meet a sticky end after it fails to meet target after target set out by the court injunction imposed upon it.

Recent reports published in the financial press warn of a steep drop in CD sales as a direct result of MP3 use have been greatly exaggerated. Many of these, originating from the music industry itself, are in fact little more than crude attempts to win public sympathy. A figure of 39% for the drop in sales has been cited. However, this is for the CD singles market, and not the recorded music market as a whole. The US singles market was in decline even before Napster came on the scene. The fact is, as the music industry fluctuates and tastes change, singles sales inevitably vary, sometimes quite markedly, as has been the case here. In reality, overall CD sales are up, particularly in Europe.

The fear and panic of the record companies is caused by something which goes far deeper than singles sales. It is founded in the fact that the MP3 holds the power to render the music industry, as we know it, and have known it for almost a century, obsolete altogether.

The traditional music industry is not some benign mediator which passes on profits to artists and producers. Nor is it some honest, hard-working entity which strives to get the best music available across to an eager public. Its success revolves around two profit-driven necessities: the necessity to dominate, and the necessity to restrict artistry. This fact remains unrecognised by the majority of people, but is freely admitted by music industry insiders, as is the challenge MP3 poses. The record industry is seemingly a complex, many-headed metabolism. In reality the whole thing is controlled by a handful of mega-corporations like Sony, who seek to turn everything that can be recorded into a pump through which they acquire profit. It is this that MP3 endangers.

Many assume that when they buy a CD, for example, and read, let?s say, ?Ruff House Records? on the back, that Ruff House Records is the company which produced the CD, and that this seemingly independent company will receive your money (some are naive enough even to believe that most of what they pay will land in the hands of the artist), when you make a purchase. Not so. Ruff House Records, which I cite as an example in this case, is a subsidiary of Columbia Records, which in turn is a subsidiary of - you guessed it - Sony Music Incorporation.

So the profits acquired from the sale of the CD go to Sony. Not the artist for the most part, nor some small, seemingly independent record label. In fact very few record labels are truly independent, and those that are tend not to be concerned with any sort of mainstream music. Sony has capitalised on buying up and repackaging catalogues of existing work - the actual artist, if they are still alive, might if they are lucky receive on average something less than 10% of the profits made.

But profit-making does not stop with the CD you have bought. Sony owns the production rights for the actual physical disc itself, and so, whichever company made the CD, or makes any CD, for that matter, will have been obliged to pay dividends to Sony. But in addition Ruff House Records (Sony in disguise) will garner profits from merchandise sales too. At every stage of production, from studio to factory to shop floor, Sony, or one of the few other mega-corporations which monopolise the record industry, take their cut.

This monopolisation, however, cannot be maintained without the music available to the public being greatly impoverished. Contrary to popular belief, the decision by a record label to sign an act is not usually made after lengthy auditions or hours of ploughing through demo tapes. In fact, it is more a case of the ?artist? being in the right place at the right time. Fads, fast turnover and factory farm productions are endlessy promoted. Thus our top 40 is filled with crap.

This has a rather sinister implication, though. By impoverishing choice, and hyping a revolving batch of stars, the music industry can make a steady fortune out of the genre known as ?pop?. In these drab, conformist and reactionary times that means unchallenging and unoriginal music. Do you ever recall Apex Twin, Nine Inch Nails or Primal Scream entering the top 40 of late? Interestingly, however, it is artists such as these who are getting the most mileage out of web technology at the moment.

In what way though does the internet pose a threat to this relentless cycle of capital production? Does Napster herald the dawn of capitalism without capital? The answer is not as simple as ?yes? or ?no?, but is unfortunately mostly ?no?. Napster has been hugely successful, with an estimated 26.1 million hits every month: 13% of internet users logged onto the service in February 2001. Despite its success - actually because of its success - Napster is sentenced to death. At the April 10 court hearing set to review Napster?s efforts to comply with a previously issued order to ban copyrighted material, progress was described as ?disgraceful? by Justice Patel, who warned that further action against the company would be allowed to proceed if compliance does not occur quickly.

The entire industry is out for Napster?s blood, not least the Washington-based lobbying group, Recording Industry Association of America, which is the sword and shield of monopoly. Napster is going to be hard pressed to avoid an ignominious end. Marshall Leaffer, professor at Indiana University Law School commented: ?They?ll get picked to pieces ... think of the litigation costs. Who?s going to fund it? I just can?t see how it can survive in any form.? Most industry analysts share this view.

But it is not Napster that holds the key to instigating an MP3 revolution against the existing music industry. It is a selection of independent ?net labels?. These new-breed record labels operate online, and by remaining small, and requiring little investment capital, can afford to pay artists a bigger percentage of income. They have the backing of a number of artist support groups, such as an anti-Recording Industry Association of America pressure group, unimaginatively named Boycott RIAA. Dotcom entrepreneurs like Garth Brookes and Emmylou Harris now enjoy almost deity status. These individuals artists who broke from major record labels and started their own web music alternatives are popular for two good reasons: increased choice, and a more equitable share of revenue. Boycott RIAA parades some telling statistics in its literature: ?In 1999 the recording industry released 2,600 new CDs, but there are over one million musicians and bands in the US alone. It is easy to see that [RIAA] don?t have [the artist?s] interests at heart, but their own.?

So presumably this new breed of capitalist has some other interest in mind? Perhaps, to begin with. But, whatever noble intentions, the system of capital cannot be beaten by the system of capital. Capital is based on reproducing capital, not meeting human need. Furthermore one capital always seeks to kill others. Napster might survive and prosper. In the past Quaker-owned firms like Cadbury?s practised a philanthropic capitalism and accumulated on a huge scale. Nevertheless capital remade capital - a social relationship, uniquely attuned to extracting more and more surplus value from the direct producers. Philanthropy rested on exploitation. 21st century anti-corporate capitalists - Naomi Klein readers all - are of the same kind. Whilst giving more choice to the consumer, for the moment, growth and success will put them on a course when profit itself, for its own sake, becomes the overriding aim.

Actually, established capital already seems set to carry through a technical counterrevolution. The courtroom is not the main battlefield. Soon, if Microsoft?s recent press statement concerning the proliferation of MP3s are carried out, it will not only be impossible to trade MP3s through the internet; it will be impossible to record them as well. Microsoft claims that in a bid to wean consumers away from ?illegal? MP3s, it is now able to limit the reproductive quality which can be achieved using MP3 files. The new restrictive technology, Microsoft states, will be introduced in its next operating system, Windows XP, which, in light of Microsoft?s past history, looks set to become industry-standard.

The MP3 as a symbol of freedom under capitalism is being destroyed by capitalism, and a more profitable version of the technology is being put in its place. Companies like Vitaminic want consumers to pay not only for albums and CDs; they want them to pay to download MP3s as well. Soon the entire MP3 system will be ?fingerprinted?, so any copyright-registered song cannot be distributed without incurring a fee.

Communists argue for a post-capitalist world where music is freely distributed. Music is one of the highest forms of human expression, and that expression of humanity should be available to everyone. Though operating under capitalist conditions Napster?s brief encounter with the music-listening public has at least given us an insight into how communist distribution might work in the future.