Bits vs Atoms

Metallica's Lars Ulrich and Creed's Scott Sapp don't get it. But Courtney Love understands, and so does Stereophile's Jon Iverson, who pointed out in the October issue's "As We See It" that the dispute between the RIAA and Napster is more important to audiophiles than it might seem. The Napster-MP3 phenomenon is a crack in the dike that controls music distribution. How the water seeps through that crack now will determine how it will flow when the drip turns into a trickle, the trickle into a stream, the stream into a river. Audiophiles and pop-music fans alike will be in the same boat.

If you've not been following it, the issues focus on the RIAA's lawsuit against the Napster website, which operates as a user-to-user directory of compressed music files (MP3s). These files can be played on computers or portable MP3 players. Napster doesn't itself provide MP3s, but it does tell you, via the Internet, how to find where they're stored on other users' PCs. From there, you can make a copy for yourself—an exact digital copy—to keep on your own computer or MP3 player. And it's all free.

As the RIAA and many musicians see it, this is theft. "Napster is robbing me blind," said Creed's Scott Sap, because fans are able to enjoy Creed's songs without paying for CDs or cassettes. Whether or not the courts ultimately agree that Napster is party to theft remains, as I write, an open question. But there is clearly something wrong with Sapp's view. If he's being robbed, he's not missing anything. Nothing is taken from him or his record company if I or a thousand fans download copies of his songs. Though bands and record companies may see less revenue from record sales in the future if most fans eventually turn from buying CDs to sharing files, that's not robbery or theft today.

The faults in Sapp's logic mirror the cracks in the dike. There's something artificial and forced in the way we think about recorded music—just as a dike artificially contains water in a place that wouldn't naturally contain it. As the Napster-RIAA suit continues to be played out, and in the longer-term evolution of the music business, our idea of what musical recordings are is going to change. Better: It's going to be corrected.

Let's get physical (and historical): Not long ago, music was essentially tied to physical events in which vocal cords and instruments buzzed and vibrated. If you wanted to hear it a second time, musicians would have to play it again. Strictly speaking, you'd be hearing different events, and the music would sound at least slightly different. It would never be exactly the same. Hear today, gone tomorrow.

Recording technology changed all that. Wax cylinders, phonograph records, tapes, and CDs decouple the playing of music from the hearing of it. To hear a performance again, you need only press Play again. No one has to sing or play a second time.

Though recordings have been around for decades, we have not yet absorbed the implications of this decoupling. Instead, we continue to think of recordings as though they were essentially material or physical—like live music itself. Appropriately, we have treated LPs and tapes as if they were precious, physical objects: Don't overplay your LPs, for you'll wear them out and damage the music! Keep them upright and out of the sun—and, for the spines' sake, away from cats! If you try to separate the music from its original medium and record it onto another (such as analog tape), there is always an audible loss, as if some of the music remains behind, locked away. Even today, I talk about recordings as if they were essentially a material commodity: I go to the record store "to buy some music."

I even used to believe that an LP or tape was, in some vague way, a substantial connection to the artists I adored. As a pre-teen fan of Elton John and the Moody Blues (sophisticates: give me a break; I was young), I imagined that Elton John or Justin Hayward made occasional trips to their record plants to see how things were going. Their pictures were on the covers, so it was easy to think that they were involved. From time to time, I imagined, they'd sit in and operate a record-stamping machine. Maybe they'd remember a fan or friend and grab a few LPs from a conveyor belt.

But it was all a fantasy resting on this idea of recordings as physical goods that move from artists to consumers. Instead, the paper, vinyl, and ink that make up my treasured, immaculate pressing of the Moody Blues' On the Threshold of a Dream (Deram DES18025) could have been manufactured as another record by another artist. As a physical object, the recording had no connection at all to the Moody Blues or their music. My understanding was only on the threshold of being correct (as my musical choices were on the threshold of taste).

The truth is that recordings are immaterial—they are sets of information merely encoded in vinyl, tape, or optical discs. That wasn't easy to see before we had the language ("MP3s" or "WAVs," for example) and the tools (personal computers) to manage files of musical information apart from the media that ordinarily contain them.

This is the metaphysical side of the Napster phenomenon: music-lovers with high-speed Internet connections, MP3 players, and lots of hard-disk space are now treating recorded music as the immaterial, nonphysical thing it is. That's why the RIAA sued Napster: Treated as physical objects, in jewelcases and cassette boxes, recordings can be distributed in a controlled, profitable matter. As immaterial files of information, they can't be. They can and will move from person to person as easily as jokes or fashion trends.

Long-term, the job for the courts is to forge a workable understanding of recordings that treats them as intellectual, not physical, properties. That's no small task, given the intricacies of copyright law and the ambiguous nature of such concepts as "software" and "hardware." On top of that, there's the human tendency to resist conceptual change—even on the part of popular artists who typically present themselves as open-minded and progressive.

Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich told Congress that his band has always embraced new recording technologies as they came along. And in the future, as music becomes more digital and more downloadable, he explained to the Washington suits, Metallica will be right there to support the new technologies. "However," he said, these developments must not "destroy the artistic diversity and the international success that has made our intellectual-property industries the greatest in the world. Allowing our copyright protections to deteriorate is, in my view, bad policy, both economically and artistically." Translation: If the future of digital distribution means allowing recordings to be widely available for free, please quash it. Mr. Ulrich wants to change with the changing times, and he doesn't.

Others are marching in step to Ulrich's beat. Jonatha Brooke (also quoted in complains that file-sharing is "stealing" from artists, and rejects talk of revolutionary changes in the music business. The idea is that artists will generate income not by selling recordings but by selling concert tickets or T-shirts. MP3s will then function mainly as a kind of advertising for other, revenue-generating parts of the business model. But Brooke seems unable to grasp the very idea that the business could change: "It's laughable," she says. The people articulating these new business models "have no idea how the music business works." Um...right.

In all of this, the clearest (if only metaphorically) voice is Courtney Love's. She's one of the few who sees the larger forest for all the MP3 trees. Why all this talk of robbing and stealing now, she asks, when "recording artists have essentially been giving their music away for free [to the record companies] under the old system"? (See the New York Times, June 11, 2000; and, June 14, 2000, "Courtney Love Does the Math.") Despite her anger toward the record companies and their exploitation of artists, Love generously outlines how they might function in an MP3-filled future. Though there will always be need for topnotch producers, engineers, and studios, it is rapidly becoming easier and less expensive for bands and artists to produce their own recordings. (I recently finished a 16-track project using just my PC and a mixer; it sounds better than anything I could have done 15 years ago in a fully equipped recording studio.) Record companies, therefore, can act less as cultivators of talent and more as filters of talent.

"In a world where we can get anything we want whenever we want it," Love asks, "how does a company create value? By filtering." Music-lovers who collect MP3s can use services to help them learn about new bands and new recordings, to learn where downloads can be found (and even purchased, if the price is right). And the services can provide critical, editorial voices debating what's good and what's not. You can charge for these services, too, because they can't be replicated and shared. My search for music will not be the same as the next guy's.

Love's proposal is faithful to the realities that the Napster-MP3 phenomenon has let out of the bag. When perfect copies of music files are only a mouse-click away, it will be futile to prop up the old business models. If the RIAA and other foes of file-sharing succeed in legally quashing Napster, other file-sharing services that are legally less vulnerable will most likely thrive in its place. The dike can't be repaired and patched forever.

Although this issue is driven by new technologies, it could return us to our older, original conception of music as a singular physical event. That which cannot be reproduced and copied with a mouse-click—namely, a live performance—could become more and more valuable to fans and music-lovers. Artists could become more like their counterparts in earlier centuries, when musicians were primarily performers, not recording artists.