Fear of Music

Can a local CD store with no CDs save record companies from free music?

"Record companies stand between artists and their fans. We signed terrible deals with them because they controlled our access to the public. But in a world of total connectivity, record companies lose that control."

--Courtney Love in Salon, June 14, 2000


Crossing a jukebox with a slot machine: Outernet wagers that on-demand music can be profitable in a retail setting
Dan Monick
Crossing a jukebox with a slot machine: Outernet wagers that on-demand music can be profitable in a retail setting

After 25 years of punks pissing on contracts and rappers holding executives at gunpoint, who would have thought that the only music-related insurrection to truly spook corporate America would be...a consumer riot? The Napster phenomenon--and please resist the urge to turn the page right now--has all the political and emotional resonance of a shoe-sale frenzy. Napster's 21 million freeloading, downloading customers occupy what amounts to a giant, virtual speakeasy for copied MP3s--not quite the cyberterrorist revolutionary cell one might have hoped for.

In a way, these dorm rats burning monitor-shaped squares into their eyes remind me of my classmates at American University back in 1988, when we discovered that all the campus pay phones were, due to some computer fluke, offering free calls to anywhere in the world for a week. Like my fellow looters of yesteryear, Napster "users" (love the term) aren't righteous enough to be rebels. Yet like all looters they fall back on a sense of what you might call the wrongteousness of their enemy: Somebody screwed us, they say. And they aren't wrong: Perhaps the kids even notice the promotional payola shelled out to radio and retail by Ma Bell's music-biz equivalents. Perhaps they notice, too, the suit brought by 28 states against the five major record companies, charging them with price-fixing.

But if Time Warner and Sony suddenly seem to be on the defensive, it's because kids already know that the latest filler-clogged Papa Roach CD just isn't worth the price of a dinner for two at Shoney's. And so they're seeking alternatives. Hell, maybe the kids are even beginning to believe that "the status quo gives us a boring culture," as Courtney Love put it in June, delivering her well-circulated Port Huron statement against big music.

If all this leads you to think that a crackdown on post-Napster technology will spark resistance, please wipe the WTO gas from your eyes. On July 28, the date that a federal court of appeals stayed the company's legal execution, neither headliner on the Limp Bizkit/Cypress Hill Napster Tour so much as mentioned their benefactor, much less the democratic benefits of digital music. And were the rabble ready to be roused? The various fans I spoke with at Roy Wilkins Auditorium had spent the afternoon downloading like there was no tomorrow. But they weren't exactly indignant about it. Looters know the rules, and they know who rules. Supporters went so far as to lamely propose a "buy-cott"--a mass shopping spree of CDs by Napster-friendly acts to benefit the service's major-label detractors, and thus appease them. Hit 'em where it heals, guys!

Of course, Generation MP3 is hardly the first to be "raised corporate," to use Ralph Nader's phrase. But teenagers in particular seem remarkably placid when it comes to big-corporate pimpin'. A month and a half after the Napster ruling, at the KDWB-sponsored Last Chance Summer Dance music festival, no one blinked when one of the station's host DJs, Zany K, zealously and repeatedly urged everyone in Canterbury Park to grab a hot slice of Domino's pizza.

Consider, though, the flip side of this acquiescence: These children won't shed a single tear when their MP3 collections render CDs, not to mention record companies and radio stations, obsolete.


The Last Chance crowd--Napster's next gen--is exactly the demographic being aggressively courted by a new, Twin Cities-based company called the Outernet, an eight-month-old business that promises to save the record companies from restless fans by allowing anyone to legally burn CDs in an actual store. This is Napster "legalized"-- which is to say, industry-tolerated. And whether or not the Edina-headquartered venture succeeds in making its flagship Apple Valley store the prototype for a nationwide chain, it might, for all I know, be a rough model for the future norm in music consumption.

A few days after the company opened on September 5, the Outernet helped KDWB sponsor the Last Chance festival and brought Destiny's Child to the Apple Valley outlet (7370 153rd St. W.; 952-891-8000) for a brief but crowded appearance. Days later, the 50,000-square-foot complex looks no less imposing for being almost deserted. With its retail-ready slat-walls and purple laser beams, the place looks like a futuristic Kmart renovated into a carpeted teen dance club. Which is exactly what its architects hope it will become: Near the entrance, designers have built two DJ towers, manned by employees mixing MP3s, live. (When I arrive, I catch one jock viewing the Napster site onscreen. But his boss should go easy on him for downloading with the enemy: When asked, the DJ bizarrely holds the industry line, arguing that industry price-fixing is justified by revenue lost to MP3 piracy.)

Beyond the towers, about 20 teenagers are scattered around the store's 230 "touch screens," downloading video games, "e-books," and music--the latter priced at around a dollar a song. Here's how it works: You acquire a free membership card through a machine at the door. The plastic provides purchasing credit in exchange for cash. Then you choose the tracks you want from a long, alphabetized list that may include, say, Jay-Z, but not Madonna. Presumably, some portion of your money reaches the artists on the database. And after a short delay, you pick up their discs at a burning station across the room.

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