Thursday, July 17, 2003

Echoes of Napster

Tuesday night I was sitting in the den, reading Slashdot while waiting for Kelly to finish her shower. One of my fatherly duties is to help Kelly with her dental hygiene every evening, since her dentist wants us to do it with her until she reaches age ten. So there I was, noodling about, and in walks Jean. She sat down and we started talking about a number of things, and somehow the subject of music came up.

I was sitting at the computer, so I just fired up iTunes and began picking off various songs that I liked that were appropriate to the conversation. We started talking about how I had bought a lot of those tunes at the iTunes Music Store, and I played a few of those for her as well. Before I knew it, we were using the Music Store interface to search for tunes that we remembered from way back when.

This was a lot like I remember Napster when it first came out, with the exception that my hit rate with Napster was a lot higher. In fact, I don't ever expect the online music stores to approach that ubiquity, because Napster, that is to say, the distributed network of peers who used Napster, had a constellation of music which was simply not on the Big Five's radar. If it ain't Top 40, the difficulty of finding it increases by an order of magnitude. Add the fact that a lot of my musical tastes are rather obscure, and Napster beat the tar out of anything that came before.

Napster of course had two problems: quality and legality. You could never be sure of the quality of the MP3 that you downloaded, or even if it was the song you thought it was. Download speed was also a total unknown. As for legality, I'd gladly have paid for the tunes I downloaded. I got Jerry Lewis' "I'm a Little Busybody" online because it was out of print. In fact, do a search of Google for I'm a Little Busybody. My weblog comes up three times in the top ten entries today. That's how rare the thing is. The Big Five doesn't want to sell it to me. To date, it's not available on the iTunes Music Store. This is unfortunately an economic fact of life. Music with a very small, specialized audience will tend to be ignored by the Masters of the Official Channel. I don't see this problem getting fixed any time soon.

Technology can fix a lot of this. Napster proved that somebody could make Jerry Lewis' classic available. The storage space is trivial, the digitization of the tune is a minor obstacle. The main problems lie with resources and licensing. If the rights owner (who is it?) made it available on iTunes Music store today, I'd buy it even though I have it, because I want to support the availability of obscure music, as well as the Brittney Spears' of today (actually instead of, but that's just me).

Anyway, end of rant. Getting back to Tuesday night...

My hit rate with iTunes Music Store is usually about 30%, because I'm so obstinate in searching out those old, odd bands I used to like, and those fringe indie bands I read about today. But with Jean in the saddle, my odds flipped. We were getting close to 70% success rates! Great! Jean has always said that she has her finger on the pulse of the heartland of America, and this is just more evidence in her favor. We even added a couple of songs to my shopping cart for her. She wanted to know first if I could burn mix CDs for her, since unlike me, she never sits at the computer listening to music. Once I said sure, she was okay with buying the tunes.

I don't have my laptop handy right now, so I won't enumerate what we bought for her until I actually buy the tunes. But I'll relate one more musical incident before closing here. I told Jean about how I'd bought an electronica album before the trip to Expo, to listen to on the plane. The group is Fischerspooner, and watching some of their online videos, I got the feeling that they are more of a performance art group that does music, than a band that does music videos. Check them out.

Then I selected one song by Fischerspooner to play for her: Emerge. It's lengthy, repetitive, rhythmic, ambient. After about two minutes Jean spoke up. "Turn it down. I think I'm going to run away screaming."

Not quite the reaction I was looking for, but entertaining, nonetheless. Just another example of they many ways in which Jean and I differ.

1 comment:

  1. Re: "Emerge":
    I believe what I said was something like "dear god please turn it off, I'm about to have a seizure."