Napsterisation will mean boon times for musicians

There seem to be two likely models of music distribution as Napsterisation gets worked out. Under the first one, old-fashioned ownership of music will be re-established through modern technical means while the other model concedes technology has rendered music ownership impossible.

Dateline -- an island in the middle of Maine's Penobscot Bay. A dozen of us have been banging drums around the nightly beach fire at my annual Big Boys Camp.

We've been singing songs downloaded into our brains decades ago, with lyrics such as "stop in the name of love." And, although there is little new left to say on the subject, we've been arguing about Napster.

In case you've been on an island without a modem, Napster is an Internet service through which music lovers, in the tens of millions, are now downloading their favorite songs.

This is disintermediation for musicians, the recording industry, and their channels of distribution.

See www.napster.com.

I told the Big Boys how I found myself behind a young thug leaving Tower Records on Newbury Street in Boston.

He snarled his outrage that the CD he'd just shoplifted -- a small piece of plastic -- was priced at $US15.

He melted into the dark, down Newbury Street, toward Northeastern University, where Shawn Fanning invented Napster only last year.

Napster users feel the same way about the prices of their favourite music. They think this justifies stealing it. They also tout their role in democratising the Internet.

Napster users are romantic heroes compared to recording executives, who prefer that their art not be Napsterised. It's no surprise that the recording industry has unleashed lawyers to defend its ownership rights.

Napster says that it doesn't steal music, its users do.

The Big Boys agree that Napster is major, certainly on a par with Web publishing and commerce.

But is it more important than the inventions of money, property, and corporations?

The defence of property rights, for example, has worked so well over the centuries that it's unlikely Napsterisation will eliminate them.

Now, I've stayed at many Hilton Hotels and Ramada Inns. Most have bars at which pianists, singers, and small bands play nightly. Sorry, but these musicians seem almost indistinguishable from rock stars they frequently imitate.

So I've wondered why they, and not rock stars, hold day jobs, peddle CDs, and are always on the verge of getting that first big recording contract -- that chance to be Britney Spears.

What would happen if today's recording industry got Napsterised out of existence? Would rock stars make less and hotel hopefuls more?

The Big Boys think all musicians will benefit from Napsterisation. More people will listen to more music more often, more revenue will flow, and more people will get to quit their day jobs to make a living from their music. I'm for that.

But if music is shared widely for free, how will musicians make their livings?

Well, today, few musicians live off their recordings. Rock stars get to go on tour, making their money elsewhere along the value chain.

So there seem to be two likely models of music distribution as Napsterisation gets worked out.

Under the first model, old-fashioned ownership of music will be re-established through modern technical means involving clever combinations of encryption and central servers. This is the model favoured by today's recording industry.

The other model concedes that technology has rendered music ownership impossible. Music will be free. Revenues will flow from tours and, well, tchotchkes.

Of course, Napster is not just about music. The Big Boys note Napster refers to itself as "person-to-person file sharing." The files are mostly MP3 music today, but soon videos, and why not Windows 2000?

So Napster and its descendants could disintermediate programmers, Microsoft, and you.

If Microsoft were Napsterised, and failed to make enough off selling Ballmer T-shirts, it would have to lay off its programmers, who would then get day jobs and by night pitifully upgrade Linux in open-source Ramadas.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe is promoting his favourite tchotchke, a recent book of these columns, Internet Collapses and Other InfoWorld Punditry, now in its third paperback printing. Email Bob Metcalfe at bob_metcalfe@infoworld.com.

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