By 11 p.m. Monday, only a few hours after the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that Napster Inc. could be held legally liable for misuse of copyright materials on its servers, the lines were jammed up. My own server, one of a hundred, had over 12,000 users logged on. That comes out to about 1,200,000 or so worldwide, including Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and El Salvador.
By then my downloads were moving with such glacial slowness -- 35 minutes for a 3-minute song, if I got it at all -- that I logged off. Sometime soon, in the next month, or even next week, Napster, whose software allows music lovers to share files in the compressed MP3 form, will either go out of business or begin charging, and those of us who have been pirating free tunes from each other's hard drives will wind up paying or walking.
What has this been all about, from the users' point of view? Are we no more than bandits, taking food out of Sony, Warner, et al's mouths, or are there principles on our side?
The public hears so much about the legal position of the music corporations, about copyright infringements and eroding profits, and nothing from us scofflaws, and that is part of the problem. CNN, which is owned by one of the plaintiffs, AOL-Time Warner, isn't going to be giving equal time to Bonnie and Clyde, is it?
There are two ways to understand the Napster vs. RIAA (Radio Industry Association of America) battle. First, in good old market terms, Napstering is a case of demand so far outstripping supply that the flaws in the distribution system are exposed.
Napster is a classic black market. The pent-up demand for music was so great and the legal market such a bottleneck that as soon as an alternative showed up, consumers by the millions voted with their feet. With their cables and modems, actually.
It is pointless to deny any longer that the system is broken and in need of an overhaul. That is the thinking behind the agreement between Napster and the German publishing conglomerate, Bertelsmann AG: that Napster technology can both turn a profit and deliver music on demand. It's a dicey proposition, and I don't trust them to do it right.
Another view is that the Napster phenomenon is a massive rebellion of music lovers against the music industry. The press's emphasis on legal issues to the exclusion of musical ones has obscured the groundswell of resentment against RIAA and the corporations it represents.
It wasn't technology that made Napster: it was the users (are there really 51 million?), who had felt blocked for years from the music they knew was out there and could not get, except by private tape swapping.
Thirteen years ago I lived in Japan, where CD rental was legal, and I would commonly rent a CD for $3 a day. In addition, state-run NHK Radio broadcast regular live concerts of American and British rock, and among the many I taped was a portion of a live Van Morrison concert that became, over the years, one of the jewels of my collection.
I had no idea what it was, but I knew I couldn't find it in any record store or Web outlet. By trial and error I found it on Napster as a 1987 concert held at the Glastonbury Festival in Somerset, England, and have since tracked down the CD source to a Norwegian product of 1997. It is magnificent music, it is unavailable, and it took Napster to find it for me.
Not only does Napster restore music -- especially some of the great live concerts that are not found in the stores -- but it also creates a deep context of music history. I'm particularly interested in the early days of rock, as it evolved from blues and R&B, and so I listen to the likes of Little Walter Jacobs, Wynonie Harris, Joe Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Witherspoon, The Clovers, The Moonglows, etc. Some of this music is available in the great 50th Anniversary Chess Records collection; some of it in the Doo Wop sets issued by Rhino Records. I have bought them all.
But missing from even those is the archaeology that makes music history come alive, and sometimes I want to hear, say, Wynonie Harris's version of "Good Rockin' Tonight" alongside of Roy Brown's. (There are plenty more, but those two are important to me.) I want, and have Johnny Otis's "Stagger Lee" next to Lloyd Price's, and The Clovers' version of "Blue Velvet" alongside of The Moonglows', and I can tell you now, finally, which is better and why.
What I've discovered in just a few weeks of using Napster is that it isn't just kids trading their music. A simple search turns up reams of Perry Como. Unexpectedly, I hit the mother lode with Russian composer Arvo Part, and just to confirm, found as much Dmitri Shostakovich, maybe more. Frankie Laine is one of the Napsterite gods.
To judge from the music available on-line, there are millions like myself: grown-ups, self-made music mavens, even people with disposable income to spend on music, as I will continue to do. At 35 minutes per download, Napster is only going to fill gaps.
The music cartel needs to move quickly to learn the lesson of this jailbreak. There are simple expedients to bring it into line with the market:
CD rental. The time is overdue for following the lead of the motion-picture industry, which has done very well with videotape and DVD rental.
Slash prices. There is no reason why the price of any CD can't be brought down to $7. Do that and lines at the record store will go around the block.
Open up the vaults of the live concerts being stored away for the time capsules. Create demand by giving music consumers a taste of the incredible wealth of our music culture.
Improve the product. Britney Spears may not be the answer to our every musical craving.
Don't be afraid of giving something away. Demand in music is not fueled by scarcity but by abundance. The Grateful Dead learned 30 years ago that giving it away was sound business, and the folks at Grateful Dead Records should be asked whether the Web sites that allow free downloads of Dead (and Phish) concerts have been bad for record sales. The answer might come as a surprise to RIAA, but not to the rest of us.
MARK SHECHNER teaches English at the University at Buffalo.