Fear of Music

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

"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


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.

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?

Perhaps the problem here is that neither new businesses nor new technology automatically improve a boring culture. Such developments sure don't automatically help non-major-label artists get noticed and circulated among the thousands currently available online. So Courtney Love's envisioned "total connectivity" may have no effect at all on the entrenched music giants. They'll shed some pounds, get out of the album business, and simply turn entirely to PR for their trade: Flooding publications and radio with promotional money, booking appearances at malls, ordering up their artists' tunes on the Box. (Sheesh, even His Royal Purple Indie-ness decided he needed a major to be properly heard.)

Perhaps what's needed is a little organizing. Or so says Brooke Aldridge, who, besides Prince himself, is the most vocal Twin Cities musician to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Courtney Love. One of the MP3.com acts to be loaded into the Outernet, Aldridge is a new-wave-coiffed singer in the local electronic pop combo Station9, which has helped record a protest electro jingle against corporate radio called, simply enough, "RADIO-FREE." She wants Napster addicts to see the big-label legal maneuvers against online music companies in context--and from an artist's perspective. "We already should have more rights over our music---and the right to be fairly distributed," she adds. "Now record companies are deciding what rights we'll have in this new medium."

For example, she points out how major labels routinely assume control over band Web sites, a practice Aldridge's organization, Artists Equal Rights Organization, wants to reverse by petitioning Congress. The group's all-purpose "Petition for Equal Rights" (http://a_ero.tripod.com/aero) also calls on legislators to reverse the "works for hire" clause that altered copyright law last year to give record companies open-ended rights to musicians' songs. (Before the Recording Industry Association of America helped push through the modification, artists could reclaim their work after 35 years.)

Something more than petitions, of course, will be required to counter the lobbying of big music, which has a vested interest in maintaining things exactly as they are, only more so. Regardless, destiny's children can be trusted to log on, listen, and do that thing they do better than any artist, business, or journalist: adapt.

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