Fear of Music

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

The evening I drop by, some customers are struggling with the system's bugs: To list but one, the songs are listed by title rather than artist. But a ballcapped kid quietly compiling a disc of hardcore hip hop says he thinks the Outernet is a pretty good idea. And so, I would imagine, do the unknowns he's downloading. Provided, for now, entirely by MP3.com, the store's database contains tens of thousands of non-major-label acts that are exactly the sorts of artists marginalized by the system that Courtney Love rails against. (Since MP3.com specializes in indie artists, the major-label selection is severely limited, though the store claims that will change.)

Maybe you think all this sounds about as momentous as a colorful new kiosk at Best Buy--and you might be right. But allow me this brief digression: Until I read Love's speech, I was right there with you. I had paid about as much mind to Napster as my dad does to innovations in hip-hop slang. I saw the service banned from the U of M campus. I wondered what Metallica's Lars Ulrich was so upset about. I chuckled over the PayLars.com Web site, which "gives Metallica fans the chance to make a donation to the band to make up for all the revenue the band thinks it's losing to online MP3 trading." (Money raised so far: $527.) I chuckled even harder at the Onion headline "Kid Rock Starves to Death: MP3 Piracy Blamed."

But it wasn't until I read that paper's nonfictional interview with comic-book critic Scott McCloud that I began to see why the success of MP3s, and perhaps the Outernet, might be a matter of predictable consumer behavior. "I don't think we've been able to test to what degree the average music listener is a pirate by nature," McCloud said. "Right now they're given a choice between spending $15 and spending zero....The world should be a jukebox. We should be dropping dimes and nickels into this thing."

A compelling idea, and one that takes on a new political urgency when you realize you're being bilked at $15. Reviewing the events of the past year, you can begin to trace a practical opposition between the new economy that young people are demanding, and the old one that record companies are artificially enforcing. And unsurprisingly, Outernet CEO John Acunto sees his company as a buffer between the two. Just as unsurprisingly, he wouldn't mind if Napster just went away.

"The reason kids love Napster is that they don't have a credit card," he tells me one afternoon, kicking his feet up in his Edina office. The thirtysomething, baby-faced exec certainly seems like a guy ready to bend the new economy to his will. He has an amusing Boiler Room aggressiveness about him--"Just be near your phone," he barks at a colleague on the cell before our interview. "I'm gonna call soon." But the game he talks is a good one: Acunto imagines an Outernet chain becoming its own cheap distribution system, one geared toward kids with no available credit to buy online and no hardware to burn discs at home, which at this point describes most kids, period.

Depending on the whims--and presumably the laws--governing a handful of judges, the Outernet may be the sort of compromise record companies will warm to as they scramble to kill post-Napster file-swapping services like the ownerless Gnutella or the impossible-to-trace Freenet. "We're the first on the planet doing this," Acunto says. "If we didn't do it, someone else would. From a distribution point of view, it makes total sense, because you don't have to carry an inventory."

What's more, I might add, there's something appealingly conservative about the Outernet's one-song-buy approach. It allows consumers to purchase tunes in a form they've always liked--essentially, as 45s. Again, I doubt kids will be seen weeping when technology makes the six-dollar CD single--so often padded with lame remixes and a cappella versions--extinct.

 

The Outernet's slogan, "the way the future was supposed to be," has a nice, willful ring to it. But there's an echo of the inevitable in the prediction that companies like the Outernet, important though they may be, will soon become so many bumps on the road to free music. Ian Clarke, the mastermind behind Freenet, has said that he views intellectual property as both theft and, well, on its way out--kind of like Marx once viewed capital.

So why don't I find this technological determinism encouraging, lapsed anarchist that I am? Sure, the devaluation of books, records, and movies might be good for us in the short run, shaking up the "entertainment" industry in a way that might make it rattle and roll a bit, too. But the writer in me knows this will also devalue artists in relation to, say, hired killers, or landlords, or (here's one) computer manufacturers. Besides, it's worth remembering that the capitalists believed Marx once upon a time, and they fought their half of the class war with the oppressive zeal of men staving off the inevitable.

That's what I hate about "the inevitable" in politics: The notion makes the wrongteous grow resolute and the righteous grow slack. Don't be surprised if the fear of free music results in a stepping up of "example" prosecutions of dorm-room copyright offenders. And what will our response be? More buy-cotts?

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