Napster no more

This is the last time I’m going to write about Napster (

After all, is there anything left to say? Any overlooked comments about copyright law? Any neglected tidbits of music business wisdom? A witty legal addendum, an unexpected side note from the fans, some journalistic remark that has inexplicably remained unsaid?

Probably not.

Since the moment the now-notorious file-sharing service first appeared, the ink used on Napster has grown from a trickle to a torrent. The Washington Post, Spin, Business Week … just about everyone’s soaked the subject thoroughly. I’m half-expecting Family Circle to run a cover story next month.

Meanwhile, Napster’s storm of legal trouble has become similarly damp. The record industry’s current court case predicts a less-than-bright future for the popular online music trading post. And last month’s successful appeal of a court-ordered shutdown doesn’t make the forecast any sunnier.

So enough rain on the hit parade. This will be my last Napster column, at least until this whole thing blows over. But before we close the drain, I’ve got one nagging question no one’s answered yet:


More specifically: Why are so many people using Napster to arguably break the law? With 20 million users (the company predicts it will grow past 75 million this October), this is a bona fide social phenomenon. So even if the courts eventually do brand Napster illegal — and they might — why is it so damn popular?

Are Napster users just criminally inclined? Latent kleptomaniacs? People with no real moral center? (Not including the Metallica fans, that is.)

I suspect it has to do with the nature of goods being exchanged. We’re not talking about trading pork bellies or commodity futures here. We’re talking music. Or songs, really. And, Britney Spears aside, songs are art. Right?

Sure. But what is art?

Is art a luxury item? Like a big-screen TV? Or a new Porsche? Do we really need songs? Maybe we should all conduct a scientific experiment: Try going for six months without any music. No public radio. No box sets. No after-hours raving in abandoned warehouses. Nothing.

The withdrawal would be torture.

Maybe we music junkies should countersue the record industry for creating a bigger group of addicts than big tobacco ever could. Of course, the major labels warn we’ll all go cold turkey if Napster thrives. It’s only logical, they note, since no artist will have any incentive to record music ever again if they’re not getting paid for it. Even Napster — whose executives recently pleaded with fans to buy CDs en masse in order to prove the company’s commercial worth — seems to have missed the point.

So let’s assume music isn’t just a consumer product. Perhaps music — like art — is a necessity. Could that be true? Is music something humanity really can’t live without, like food, shelter or water?

For me, it is. And growing evidence says many others feel the same. After all, the business of recording and selling music has existed for only a handful of decades. But humans have enjoyed the pleasure of a good sing-along since they first huddled around a fire with Og the Crooning Caveman.

So if music is a basic need, maybe peer-to-peer trading services (such as Napster) are ethically correct. Imagine if you could press a button and provide fresh drinking water to everyone on earth. Services like Napster, Gnutella and others have the potential to do the same thing with the nourishment of music. True, no money exchanges hands. But ultimately, which serves the greater good?

In a recent commentary, columnist Scott Rosenberg compared the current Napster situation to the era of Prohibition.

“For all sorts of reasons,” writes Rosenberg about Napster users, “people don’t feel that they’re doing anything wrong.”

I think I know why: We want to live in a world where essential cultural sustenance flows freely and unrestricted. Almost by instinct, we will break any law that impedes that basic need.

Technology is now making this age-old dream possible. And it’s a very potent dream. But it’s not such a bad fate. Just as our urge to hear music is surely innate, so is the drive to create it. Musicians will still write songs. And they’ll share them freely, with a potential online audience of billions.

I am convinced this is the future. The other options are just implausible: Encode songs so they can’t easily be duplicated, only to be eventually copied and redistributed everywhere by angry fans? Or how about huge law-enforcement efforts hauling millions of music lovers into jail?

It won’t work. As every plumber knows, water always finds the most direct path. Soon, it will be far easier to imagine a world where music flows freely and money is made by simply doing something else.

So I’ll shut up about Napster for now. The thunderous crowd of online music lovers is loud enough. But I’ll close with one last word of advice for the record industry: Don’t fight this anymore. You can’t build a dam big enough to hold it back.

Better yet, be creative for a change. And go with the flow instead.

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