Thursday, July 29, 2010

Napster, and the Softest Bullet Ever Shot

Napster fucked us, plain and simple. It was like we all became crackheads. It was cheap and as long as you knew where to go, it was easy get and you could take as much as you could carry. It felt good at first, but before we knew it, we couldn't stop using it. Eventually, it left us hollow, a shell of our former selves. When we looked in the mirror, we didn't recognize who we saw. We became mp3-addicts, freebasing electronic rocks through our Ethernet cables, forgetting how to live and how to listen to music.

Trust me, I know because I was a huge user. Oh, it started out innocent enough...born out of curiosity and a desperate desire for out-of-print Cure b-sides; I turned to Napster as a way to satisfy my completest urges, but before I knew it, I had stopped buying music all together and started downloading songs and albums I didn't even really want simply because I could.

A large part of it was novelty. Before Napster, the only thing I used the Internet for was printing out a Misfits lyrics book, looking up inaccurate information for high school research papers and seeking out naked pictures of Jenny McCarthy, but then Napster came along and suddenly the Internet seemed to have a higher purpose. I could get music for free. It was a revelation. It was exhilarating. It was like handing a rockhead a packed pipe and a bottomless supply...only bad shit could come of it. A wise man named Justin Hawkins once said "It seemed like such a good idea at the time", and how right you were Mr. Hawkins. It seemed like a fucking great idea at the time. But we tend to only see our mistakes clearly when we look at them in a rear-view mirror, and Napster was a mistake. P-2-P networks changed everything, stole it all; robbed us of our fanship, our humanity, our souls, and the kicker is, we unlocked the God-damned door for them.

Napster got us hooked, and once that happened, the way the world collectively looked at music changed. There was no more investment. Obviously, if you were using Napster you weren't investing financially, but more importantly, Napster allowed music fans to check out emotionally. That's not to say that economics wasn't in itself a significant factor. It changed record sales which changed the industry which ultimately changed the way we saw musicians. All of the sudden, artists who wanted to sell records became evil and greedy. We suddenly thought artists who were upset about their music being ripped off were sycophants to the almighty dollar, like they didn't care about their art or their fans, like all they wanted was a big pile of cash to put on top of their already big pile of cash.

The fact that Metallica had spent 14 months on the road playing shows for fans ceased to matter. Metallica, as the obvious example, wasn't touring relentlessly for themselves. Can you imagine how hard it must be to tour for over a year? I'm away from my house for 5 hours and I start to get the shakes. They, like pretty much every other band in history, were doing it for the fans, they were doing it so as many people who wanted to see them had the opportunity to do so. And because they played so many fucking shows, ticket prices stayed down. This isn't meant to be a defense of Metallica, or a validation of Lars Ulrich. I like Metallica, and I think Lars Ulrich is a dick, but not because he wanted people to buy his records. That just makes him a working musician.

I remember all the Lars bashing; I was in on it anytime the topic crossed my path, but not because I agreed with the arguments, because I was scared not to be. I was scared that understanding the point of Ulrich threatened my coolness factor, so I agreed and mimicked people's rage, but I understood where he was coming from. First off, L.U. claims that his only anger at Napster was the fact that it gave bootleggers opportunity to release unfinished material. Maybe that's true, maybe that isn't...I don't know. But I do know I don't like anyone reading what I'm writing before I'm finished, not even my wife. So if rough cuts of a song find their way onto the Internet, I can understand why he'd be pissed. It'd be like eating a chef's food before their done cooking it. Even if it tastes good, it's not going to be as good an experience had you let them finish.

But even if it had more to do with the cold, hard dollar more than our buddy Lars let on, people seem to have forgotten that although music is art, it's also a musician's job. I don't know about you, but if I showed up to work tomorrow and they told me my services would be on a strictly volunteer basis hence forth, they would blink their eyes and see nothing but my dust trail. I'm not going to work for free, and I suspect neither would you, so why would we expect musicians to do it?

I've heard the counter arguments. "I go to the shows", and "I spend money at the merch tables". I know the arguments because I've used them myself. But truthfully, I will never have enough money to buy tickets to even just one show by every band or artist that I've downloaded music from, I certainly won't have enough expendable cash to throw at merchandise. It's an excuse, a rationalization. It's illegitimate and it's delusional. It's something to say in order to make ourselves feel better about doing something we know is wrong but wish wasn't.

It fucked the record industry too. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a huge supporter of the record industry or big business in general, but I also don't have time to care about trying to stick it to "The Man". I'm tired a lot, and I am a big fan of instant gratification, so with the exception of my wife, I don't really want to stick it to anyone. Hey, I'm all for the theoretical overthrow of "The Man", and it someone wants to stick it to the man in my honor, go for it, but in this case, we didn't stick anything to anyone making above a 5 figure salary by using P-2-P programs, we stuck it to ourselves. The result of the use of of Napster and other P-2-P networks resulted in a change in the way the record industry operated.

At one time, record companies conducted business much in the same way that publishing houses do. Publishing houses sign mass-market paperback-ready authors because they sell a shit-ton of books. They then can funnel the profits they make from that less-than-creative but more-than-lucrative author into other less-than-lucrative but more-than-creative writers. The rewarding ends justify the filthy means. Danielle Steel gives us John Irving. Granted, Irving carries weight on his own now, but he didn't when he started, and all good things have to start somewhere, and 9 times out of 10, good things are misunderstood and under appreciated in the beginning.

In 1994, Columbia Records was the home to both Aerosmith and Jeff Buckley. By 1994, Aerosmith sucked but sold a lot of albums and Jeff Buckley did neither of those things. I can't say that Aerosmith's record sales had a direct impact on Columbia singing Jeff Buckley, but I can't imagine it hurt. In a perfect world, Jeff Buckley would have sold 6 million copies of Grace worldwide, but we live in a very imperfect world, and in reality, Jeff Buckley was never going to sell millions upon millions of records. It sucks, but it's the truth. With a crappy cash-cow like Aerosmith on it's roster, Columbia could sign Jeff Buckley without fear. If it's a commercial success, awesome, but if it's not, if signing Jeff Buckley turned into a financial black-hole, Columbia could find solace in the fact that they unleashed a brilliant artist on the world, even if the world was too myopic to care and still have Aerosmith to churn out another shitty record that would sell 3 million copies to fill the economic void.

But the Napster shows up. Faster than anyone could ever imagine, Napster begins draining record sales, not only from the paltry numbers of the artistically brilliant but commercially unmarketable, but also from the horribly marketable but artistically barren. What's a company supposed to do? A business that deals in art is still a business, and they need to at least break even if not turn a profit. So the record industry shifts from the old mold. They no longer use commercially feasible entertainers to foot the bill for honest artists, they take a dollars-and-cents, practical approach to business. They start to sign, promote, push only commercially proven, probable money-making artists. Suddenly, we're overrun with bullshit. Suddenly, unless you're 'NSYNC, you're album doesn't get made on a major label because if it can't make a ton of money, then it's costing the label too much money to make. The result is record companies discharging a tumult of entertainers with no artistic merit but an excess of commercial viability on us, saturating the airwaves with junk-food sounds instead of solid, enriching, nutritious sustenance.

And can you blame them? They're just trying to stay afloat. They're just trying to make records that make money so they can continue to make records, period. I wish I could find the fault with and point the finger at the record execs for ruining recorded music, but they've never been in charge of making a good band popular, they've only been in charge of giving a good band a chance to be popular, and Napster destroyed the record labels' financial ability to take chances on a good but unproven band. After Napster, good bands still made records, and a ton of people listened to them, but without the numbers reflected in dollar-signs, major labels had to resort to releasing nothing but Enrique Iglesias records, because Enrique still sold, and even he and the others of his ilk weren't selling as much as they would have in a Napsterless world. Still, the pop stars were making some bank, so the record companies released and promoted the shit out of that stuff, forcing everything else in to a dark corner.

Meanwhile, the pool of creative and worthwhile artists being released and promoted on major labels was slowly drying up, evaporating from an ocean to a lake. Good musicians were still getting signed, but they had a lot less time to prove themselves as a viable economic force. Where artists once had three, four, five records to make a name for themselves, they now had an album or two before the major labels chalked them up to a bust and cut them loose. I wish we could blame the record companies, but they were like any other evolutionary organism, adapt or die. The adaptation wasn't beneficial to the music buying public, but the companies managed to survive. It sucks, but you kind of have to give them a pass. Napster on the hand doesn't get that pass. Napster was the music world's CFC's, destroying the ozone and perpetuating the global warming that evaporated that ocean.

But then there's this other effect, less tangible but far more dangerous. See, when you buy music, you feel a greater need to give an album a fighting chance. When you pay hard-earned greenbacks for a record, you listen to it a lot. Maybe you don't like it the first time you hear it, but you still listen to it five, eight, ten times. Maybe you will eventually throw your hands up in disgust and admit to yourself and the world that you wasted your money on a bad album, but maybe after that tenth time listening to it, you'll hear something you didn't hear those first nine times, some subtle nuance, some small detail that managed to escape you the initial handful of times you tried to justify your purchase. And sometimes, some of those albums you don't like at first turn into some of the best records you ever heard.

Some of my favorite albums ever are ones that I didn't like at first: Radiohead's O.K. Computer, Jeff Buckley's Grace, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, The Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America were all records that, after one listen, made me wonder what in the fuck my friends or the critics I respected were listening to. But because I refused to give up on them, eventually they didn't simply grow on me after but fucking floored me.

I think about that a lot, about where I'd be if I'd given up after a listen or two; would I be a different person? Probably not, but I still would have missed out on some of the most enriching material I've had the pleasure to fall in love with. I paid money for them, so I wanted to give them as many opportunities as it took for me to be absolutely conclusive. I wanted to repeatedly pour over the evidence before I handed in my verdict. I invested financially so I wanted to invest emotionally. And I think that's how it was for all of the music buying public, that's how it was when you had to buy music, but Napster changed that. "No cash" equated to "no real involvement".

Napster made music disposable, like food at an all-you-can-eat-buffet; don't like something you grabbed? Set the plate aside, toss it out. Go back and get something else. It's no thing to you, you're not paying any more for it than you already have. And if the next thing you take isn't so great either, throw that out too and find something new. If something wasn't instantly pleasing, you could get rid of it with a few simple mouse clicks, sending it away into the garbage disposal without ever having to think twice about it. For some people, it was liberating, but for me, it just made me feel sad, wasteful, traitorous, and helpless to stop myself.

Napster provided us the opportunity to lose a part of ourselves, and we lunged at it, we drank it up with fervor and begged for more. True, we only have ourselves to blame for what it did to us as fans; you can't blame a drug dealer because you're an addict. The dealer may be a piece of shit, but unless we're willing to buy what he's selling, he doesn't exist. But what Napster helped us become as music consumers doesn't come close to comparing what it did to what we're consuming.

Napster showed the world that coupling music and technology was a lucrative prospect. MP3 players may have existed years before Napster, but I certainly didn't know anyone who had one. Before Napster, the MP3 player required a lot of personal dedication. You had to create your own MP3's from CD's you bought, or spend massive amounts of time searching for websites that hosted downloadable files. They were bulky and expensive but had small amounts of memory, and required a lot of work. They were annoying and wouldn't have lasted, but then Napster came along and made everything easy, thus destroying the viability of the physical medium of music. But it doesn't end at MP3 players.

Napster accelerated music-based technology. Suddenly, software companies began pumping out products that made home recording easier and the results sound more professional. Simultaneously, websites like Myspace and Youtube begun popping up that gave these new home-recorders an outlet to display their material. The virtual world became saturated with two-bit hacks who found themselves with means and opportunity. Sadly enough, the music world responded, and everything became a hastened reaction to the guerrilla bullshit that we found ourselves swimming in.

It ushered us into the age contrived novelty; writing a solid song and executing it with precise and exceptional aptitude took a backseat to gimmick. Separating yourself from the heard became the most important and essential thing. Even though that ocean I mentioned earlier was definitely shrinking, the water had to go somewhere, and suddenly we found the plains flooded with uninspired musicians, or at least incapable ones. Now anyone who had ever had the slightest aspiration to be a rock star found the opportunity to do so, as long as they sounded original. Being different became more important than being good. We have stopped caring about artists who wrote good songs and focused on people who write different sounding songs. Good or bad, it doesn't matter as long as it doesn't sound like something that came before it. But a piece of shit that smells like perfume is still just a good smelling piece of shit. Just because something is different doesn't make it good, it simply make it different.

What all of this ultimately amounts to is that Napster showed the world that there was money to be made by pairing music with burgeoning, non-musical technology, and once that happened, the music world began to spin way too fast for music fans. We couldn't keep up, so we, like the major labels, had to adapt. And like the major labels, those adaptations may have allowed us to survive but made us fundamentally less than what we used to be.

Artist loyalty went out the window. We used to buy records by artists we liked simply because we liked the artist. Good or bad, we bought the album and listened to it. Some albums were better than the last one, some were good but not as good as the last one, and some weren't good at all, but we bought them all and listened to the shit out of them. For better or worse, you stuck out with your artists because they were your artists.

That may seem horribly moronic if not maybe at least a little admirable, but if you love music, the outcome is really just purely beneficial. Ryan Adams is one of my artists. I'm going to buy anything that R.A. puts out simply because he put it out. Some of it's been good, some of it's been not so good, some of it's been mind-blowingly, fucking-A brilliant, and for me, the average and sub-par have proved to be as equally valuable as the amazing, life-altering shit. Oh, I'm not saying the aesthetics are equatable; Cold Roses and Heartbreaker will always sound better than Demolition or Cardinology, but in the end, their substantive worth is the same because the great and not so great both give me a clearer, deeper insight into the music. I've always believed that to truly appreciate the present, we have to internalize the past. Pouring over what's already happened gives us the ability to comprehend and appreciate what's currently happening and helps us prepare for the future. I can feel the newer Ryan Adams records more because, good or bad, I've thoroughly studied the albums that have already been released.

By giving the missteps just as much attention as I've given the triumphs, I've gained a greater understanding of Ryan Adams as an artist. This understanding creates a more immediate and intimate relationship with the good records, but it also provides me with the ability to comprehend the moves that seem incomprehensible. I can listen to a record he makes that isn't nearly as good as some of the things he's done in the past, and even if the end result isn't what I want it to be, I can find reason in his process; I can find method in his madness. This helps me to see the less obvious records in a different light than I otherwise would be able to, to see the more veiled efforts for what they really are and not just what they simply seem to be.

What this boils down to is I get him as an artist. As a human being, who in the hell knows. He's easily one of the most baffling fucks I've ever known of, but as a creator, I understand him, I get it. The good, the bad, and the ugly as it applies to his music all makes sense to me. I may not agree with all of his decisions, but I understand why he makes them. As a result, his music means a lot more to me than it ever would otherwise.

Maybe this seems like self-coercion or maybe concession. Maybe it seems like because I've allowed myself to fall in love with an artist I'm willing to accept whatever swill they throw at me as something worthwhile, excellent, significant or possibly even essential. I don't know, maybe that's exactly what it is, but I don't think so. I don't think I'm deaf to what I listen to, even if it may seem like I'm blinded by the person who creates what I hear. What I think it means is that I'm searching for clarity, looking for more depth not only in the music I listen to, but the way I listen to music. This used to be the way. This used to be the way we all did it, everyone. This was the approach everyone took when listening to music. But once Napster happened, that ideology went out the window for a lot of people, too many people, frankly. We once were all loyal fans to somebody, but P-2-P networks stole that principle from us. We were no longer devout fans to anyone, we were simply slaves to the technology.

Suddenly, the excitement about new albums released by the bands you loved was gone. Enthusiasm was replaced by skepticism. If a band released a record you loved, and you heard a new one was coming out, you greeted it with crossed arms rather than open ones. What a band or artist did in the past became meaningless. We stopped expecting new albums by great bands to be as great as the previous effort; precedent ceased to be a factor. We are no longer happy about a band who has made us happy in the past. If someone's impressed us, we're no longer expectant, we're incredulous. We might listen to it...hell, we probably will, but rather than being thrilled about something new by someone we love surfacing, we approach it with cynicism. We expect the artist to fail; we expect the artist to fall short of the expectations their previous effort established. We want the artist to prove it, prove they're worth our time.

In the past, music fans were like sports fans, but Napster came along and gave us everything we wanted pretty much all at once, and that kind of unlimited access coupled with heightened disposability made us jaded. We no longer listen to transitional albums and try to find the transition. We don't attempt to decipher the code, we don't try to see where the music might be headed, simply because it hasn't already gotten there. We want instant gratification.

Now, when a band doesn't constantly perform, we write the band off instantly. The idea of a "rebuilding year" in music no longer exists. Sports fans, like music fans once were, are willing to accept a lackluster season or two if it means that their team will eventually be better. They don't stop watching the games or throw the jerseys away if their team is in a transitional period. They watch the games while wearing the logos with staunch pride and loyalty. Failure doesn't stop being disappointing, but they persevere and wait for a brighter day.

But once Napster happened, loyalty and patience became insignificant. When financial investment was a factor, we had to be selective, we had to make decisions, form bonds, and let those bonds play themselves out. Before Napster, we had to try, had to care; we kept the concert t-shirts on and listened to the new records even if they weren't as good as they had been in the past because we were waiting for our bands to shine again, and although this was often grueling and painful, and sometimes, there never was that return to form we were so desperately waiting for. But but then there were other times, other times when, after hanging in there through an album or two of shit, our artists recaptured what they had once been and shined brighter than ever before. Your loyalty was rewarded, and it was amazing. That was what made being a music fan truly worth while.

But in order to have loyalty, you had to have emotional investment, and more often than not, to be emotionally invested you had to be financially invested, and financial investment is made only when something is deemed valuable, and nothing disposable is ever truly valuable. So when Napster made music a disposable commodity, it also made the users incapable of ever really loving anything they heard. Oh, it was easy to like a lot of it, maybe even all of it, but love never reentered the equation. Everything suddenly had a sell-by date. New albums no longer had the potential to achieve timelessness because now they had a shelf-life. All the bonds we once developed with the music and artists we loved became tentative and insubstantial. There was no more devotion, no more loyalty, no more historical connection with artists. There was no more marriage to the music, no more relationship with the songs. Instead, we metamorphosed into a culture that saw their music as nothing more than just a seemingly random string of events tied loosely together by time and place, a culture that valued style over substance and quantity over quality. We settled for what was "pretty good for now" over what would be "great for ever".

And in the end, that's what truly sucks about Napster and P-2-P's. They turned us in to automatons. We stopped being fans. We stopped caring about our library because we could amass as big a library as we wanted without repercussion. Because we stopped having to make a decision about what music was important to us, all music became equally and simultaneously less important. We stopped caring because we could. The music we listened to became less a statement of who we were and more a statement of who we wanted or thought we should be, and that mentality makes us stupid and indistinguishable.

In the P-2-P world, loving Ludacris is no different than loving Against Me! because we no longer have to pick between the two. You no longer have to decide what to spend your money on. Through the P-2-P mentality, one thing is the same as the other. Weighing options isn't a concern in the P-2-P world because everything is at your disposal. The music you listen to is no longer a statement of who you are because choice is no longer a factor. Everything can be yours, so in the end, nothing is's anyone's who wants it. You are now no different than someone who is actually completely different from you. Napster and P-2-P's drained our individuality.

What all of this adds up to is Napster made music less important and to save some cash, music fans fell in line. We accepted Peer-2-Peer networks' degradation of an art-form we loved in order to keep some green in our pockets and our greed (or frugality depending on how you look at it) not only prevented us from being outraged but made us cheer and celebrate Shawn Fanning. Certainly, it would be impossible not to applaud Fanning and Napster as a technological crowning achievement, but as for a musical one, it was nothing more than a slowly penetrating bullet to the head.

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