Tom Matrullo on Napster
Wednesday, July 12, 2000 by Dave Winer.
I've received a few comments on the increasing frequency of this column. People want to know why. I don't know. Too much going on to stop and think about that.
I still have a backlog of good stuff. And to make matters even worse other people are writing beautiful essays about music and the Web, and the shifting of money and power in the dot-com world; even XML is blooming now.
It's a time of creative explosion, something to let rush through, in the next quiet period, if that ever comes, we can figure out why.
Lawrence is a Web researcher. Ask him a question, within fifteen minutes you get an analysis, with links, and an angle. Doc is a publicist, editor, pundit and Cluetrain author. His weblog has great personal writing, and links to things he cares about.
Yesterday Lawrence pointed to a piece on Doc's site, written by Tom Matrullo, which is a total heart-grabber and idea-inspirer, on the subject of Napster and music and history, art, and excitement. I immediately wanted to get his ideas in front of as many people as possible The distributed editorial system I described yesterday is working its magic. Here's what Tom said.
Mozart once heard a piece of music so piercingly beautiful that he was moved to write it down from memory after hearing it performed in a church. He had no choice. The church believed it "owned" the music, and forbade anyone to copy it. So, Mozart pulled a Napster. The piece has been in the public domain ever since, for all to enjoy.
Napster -- a simple tool, crafted with no unnecessary arabesques of code -- is organic software: Dionysus who knows no boundaries. Such a natural tool seems obvious in hindsight, like an evolutionary "Eureka!" -- the moment when life figured out the heart.
Why wasn't Napster obvious before it stared us in the face?
Open Napster and you're looking out over dizzying vistas of other people's music (OPM) on Other People's Hard Drives (OPHDs). It's like suddenly gaining several thousand generous, musically literate friends. You have highly compressed conversations sharing intimate knowledge of the music you love, without ums, uhs and other inessential articulations.
In a commercial culture, this tool was nearly unable to be thought. But here it is, offering me Sara Brightman in full-throated ease, thanks to some angel named SWAT18.
Napster has been called the third quantum jump in software, after VisiCalc and Mosaic. Not because of any technical complexity. Its designer, Shawn Fanning, bought a book to figure out how to write the program. The coding wasn't hard to do. The concept was hard to think.
If the Cluetrain Manifesto turns notions of markets upside down, Napster turns the trucking template inside out. Napster enables the nonce deployment of love via self-organizing labyrinths that defy central distribution models. Like the Manifesto's position that "Markets are conversations," Napster gives us a place for people's music to be held in common, not consumed.
Music has always had underground modes of dissemination. Remember how every working musician had their cheap xeroxed "fake books"? Napster was difficult to conceive because we forgot sharing. Central distribution of intellectual property (IntelProp) via channels, trucks, ships, presses, wires and microwaves -- "trucking" for short -- was all we could remember. In that system, music is not what gladdens our souls. It is mediated Product inserted into dead bodies, shipped and sold for good hard cash.
We used to need the corpses -- CDs, vinyl, tape, etc. We, the sorryassed multitudes who couldn't get to the Met, to La Scala, or to Ozzfest, to bask in the unmediated presence of the Voice, the Artist. IntelProp vampires fed on our failure to arrive at the live act. Trucking is the wounding prosthetic that grows inside our disability to be present, as advertising infects us with discontent on which it dines.
And this spawned Content. Corporate distributors only see numbers, units, penetration, market share. To understand Content, you must ignore it. Pay attention only to containers.
If you imagine there is something called Content, you won't like Napster.
Courtney Love nailed it: "What the hell is content? Nobody buys content. Real people pay money for music because it means something to them. Being a 'content provider' is prostitution work that devalues our art and doesn't satisfy our spirits. Artistic expression has to be provocative. The problem with artists and the Internet: Once their art is reduced to content, they may never have the opportunity to retrieve their souls."
Napster doesn't distribute Content. Instead, it offers a voyeuristic look into OPM on OPHDs- a glimpse into the intimate specificity of other people's loves. More than a look -- we have permission to "take" what we like, secure in the knowledge we are welcome to it. A regular Dionysian orgy of passions.
Other people's loves: Downloaded music is like the commonplace books of old, in which people would preserve snippets from books that held special meaning for them. Napster feels more personal than "personalized" sites. Without leering, it offers constellations of love affairs people have had with music- each one different, each reflecting a soul.
Napster is ingenuity powered by enthusiasm and generosity of spirit. It is the negative image of those porn sites that promise you'll be nuzzling 417,000 nubile young women within 30 seconds of handing over your credit card.
Interestingly, it is also the negative image of the piratical record company model described in detail by Love -- how did porn sites and record companies get into the same slimy category? Hmmmm.
Sons of Napster will add features to its basic model -- links to all kinds of info about music one is downloading, about the artists, where they're appearing, etc. And a means of stopping a download and restarting without having to start over. Or, a way of finding out if the only guy with the song you've needed for years is going to log off in the middle of your download. So what? Napster gives so much that any quibble is downright mean-spirited.
We can already hear the coming fuss, when bandwidth and grandsons of Napster permit us to exchange our passions for videos, films and other IntelProp.
Some good things will never be transferred this way. Like cuttings from flowering plants. Too bad, because I'm sure gardeners love to share their cuttings exactly as music lovers enjoy sharing their cuts.
The analogy isn't all that lousy, really. The gardener buys seeds, or borrows a cutting, and grows a plant -- the plant makes possible its own replication, but only in real life, not virtually. The point is, the gardener who owns something he/she wants to share will always make a cutting. The cutting gives away part of the whole to create a new whole.
With Napster, we are made more whole: Music sings without trucks, dances without dead limbs.
The act of downloading a song is labor, sort of. A broadband declension of the medieval passion of monks for manuscripts. When I play a song I've downloaded, I experience every note more intimately for having had a hand in its replication.
Napster brings closer a paradisiacal economy -- a realm of abundance where trucking (and advertising) is hard to imagine. Where Mozart doesn't have to kidnap music. That is why it is embattled.
When musicians work, they need to be compensated. They can either become one with the vampires, or look to salaries or tips -- patrons or fans. That way requires faith, if songs are to be free.