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The Boston Phoenix Napster Nation

Another community springs up on the Net

By Carly Carioli

AUGUST 7, 2000:  One crisp afternoon last spring, armed with a copy of the Billboard charts, I walked a few blocks from work to visit my little sister at Boston University so she could teach me how to use something called Napster, about which I knew very little except that it was supposed to be a tool, in the words of a friend of a friend, to "steal all the music you want for free." At first I dismissed the idea out of hand as being too ludicrously good to be true -- all the music in the world, whenever you wanted it, flowing like tap water. There had to be a catch somewhere. But when universities began blocking access to Napster -- so many students were using it, and were downloading so much, that they were causing the cyberspace equivalent of a traffic jam -- it seemed worth a gander, and so I set out with piracy in my heart.

My sister Tia, as it turns out, is one of the vast numbers of college students who are uniquely equipped to exploit Napster's resources. She has a sturdy late-model PC with a built-in writable CD burner and high-quality outboard speakers, the whole of which set her back just a little over $1000. Her connection to the Web, by virtue of the high-speed lines with which dorm rooms are now equipped, is extremely fast. Like many other college students, she has relatively exotic tastes (faves: Blonde Redhead, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Miles, Eno's weird side, Nick Drake) and plenty of time on her hands. She doesn't have much in the way of disposable income -- but with Napster, lack of cash is suddenly no obstacle to accumulating a weighty music library.

By the time I visited Tia, she and her roommate already had about 700 songs stored on her hard drive (the result of a couple of months' worth of late-night Napstering) in the form of MP3s: condensed, bite-sized morsels that provide a reasonable facsimile of CD-quality sound in the form of files small enough to travel quickly over the Web. More than a dozen MP3 players can be found to download from the Web, many of them free -- Tia's pops up on her PC screen looking like a digitized car stereo. Or, with a few keystrokes, you can use your MP3 player to decode the MP3 files and burn them onto blank CDs, in which case you have essentially set up your own miniature CD-pressing plant. Tia played me a couple of songs from her hard drive: something new by Yo La Tengo and a Dirty Three song. Then she played me the same two songs, which she'd burned onto a CD, this time through her shelftop stereo: the difference in sound quality was to my ears minimal. There's also software to reverse the process: she can stick the new Belle & Sebastian disc in her computer's CD drive and, using a program called Adaptec, have it converted, or "ripped," into MP3 form -- at which point there's nothing to stop her from sharing it with the rest of the planet.

The Napster software, available for download free of charge at www.napster.com, is a fairly simple program that allows you to trade MP3 files with anyone else who is logged on to one of the company's servers. The servers compile a continuously updated database of all the MP3 files on the computers of everyone logged on at any given moment and then provide you myriad ways to navigate that database -- you can search by artist or song title or album, as in an on-line record store, or you can browse the libraries of individual users. At any given time, my sister explained, you're connected to between 5000 and 8000 other users, who have a combined library of between a half-million songs (on off-peak hours) and a cool million (during prime time, which for Napster is usually around 1 a.m.).

That day, when we joined the party, there were 5872 different people with combined holdings of 726,823 songs. I took a look through the hip-hop singles chart in Billboard and decided to search for "Whistle While You Twurk" by a group called the Yin Yang Twins. The Napster console -- which looks and operates not unlike your Web browser -- told me that four people had the song, that all four song files had the same "bit rate" (an indication of sound quality, with higher rates meaning better sound), and that each file would take up 4.2 megabytes of disc space. Three of the four versions were four minutes and 35 seconds long, but the last version was a few seconds shorter; of the three full-length versions, one resided on the computer that had a very slow connection to the Web. Of the remaining two versions, I picked the one with the lowest score in a column marked "Ping," a kind of Internet radar that bounces a signal off the user's computer to measure response time.

So I clicked on the low-ping version of "Whistle" and -- voilà! -- in less than a minute it was ensconced on Tia's hard drive. (On a good day, with the right connection, she can download a five-minute song in 40 seconds.) The means by which this transfer occurs has become the focus of much litigation recently. The song never actually resides on the Napster server: my computer contacts this other person's computer and the song goes straight from him or her to me -- or from me to him or her. While we were downloading "Whistle While You Twurk," other users had begun to download songs from my sister's computer -- as soon as you connect to one of Napster's servers, the list of MP3s on your hard drive (or at least in a file you set aside for people to copy from) is added to the master list of available songs, and in this way, as people log on and off, the available library shifts and heaves and breathes. Soon, Tia's console showed eight users copying tunes from her hard drive -- rare Nick Drake, live Radiohead, Red House Painters, Pizzicato 5. Someone with a slow connection was trying to download an obscure Brian Eno track -- with your standard 56k phone-line connection, it can take up to half an hour to download a single song -- and with a click of the mouse, we booted him out of our library. Even in Napster's free world, hierarchies are unavoidable.

By now I could smell blood. I wanted to hit the ol' record industry right in the gonads -- if you're gonna steal big, steal the family jewels -- so I headed straight for the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart: Britney, Christina, Destiny's Child, the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync. The Top 40 was available almost in its entirety -- in fact, if a song's on the radio (say, Sisqó's "Thong Song"), chances are there'll be a dozen or more copies of it available at any hour, day or night, along with remixes, edits, answer songs (Strings' "Tongue Song") and parodies ("Bong Song"). Billboard's country, rap, and R&B specialty charts fare slightly less well than mainstream pop and modern rock -- most of the Top 40 rap and country singles can be found in abundance, but you also tend to encounter fewer high-speed DSL and T1 connections. I grabbed tunes by George Strait and DMX, Cledus T. Judd and Juvenile and the Bloodhound Gang. My sister's roommate told me about a song one of their floormates had discovered called "Fuck You in the Ass" by the Outthere Brothers, a low-budget Miami club-pop duo, and in under two minutes we'd located and downloaded it and were guffawing along with its bootacular whimsy. The sheer mass of three-quarters of a million songs sprawled in front of me, the echo of a great howling congregation swept up in an orgy of acquisition, and in the swirl of digital commotion -- uploads/downloads, matches made, connections brokered -- I had the sudden image of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, its harried and panicked roar, as if everyone could suddenly own everything without spending a dime.

Metallica's Lars Ulrich has likened Napster users to shoplifters, and that's exactly what it felt like -- it was akin to breaking into a record store. Or like eBay without money changing hands. There was an illicit thrill about it, as if a gate had been unlocked, as if an iron curtain had fallen. I giggled: "Elvis and Cartman singing 'In the Ghetto'!" I sniggered: "They've got Mr. Bungle covering Britney Spears!" I cackled: "When did Nick Cave do 'I Put a Spell on You'?" I gasped: "Look look look -- Danzig singing Misfits songs with Metallica!" The next thing I knew it was five hours later and my sister's hard drive had expanded its library by about 50 songs. I could've continued all night -- I hadn't even scratched the surface, and I still haven't.

For casual fans or hardcore record fetishists (who savor such things as packaging and serial numbers and first pressings), Napster might -- as has been suggested by the company's lawyers -- serve as a consumer resource, a way to sample before buying. But for music junkies like me, it's is nothing short of compulsion-inducing, at least at first. My sister recalled her first encounter with Napster in much the same way that several other friends subsequently described their own introductions: a period ranging from several days to several weeks spent obsessively grabbing as much as they could, hour after hour late into the night and early morning, following tangents from artist to artist, song to song.

A brief and subjective glimpse: Black Flag's "Six Pack." Kate Smith's "God Bless America" (the version generally credited with winning the Philadelphia Flyers several Stanley Cups). G.G. Allin. Django Reinhardt. The Descendents' entire Milo Goes to College album. Art Pepper & Chet Baker. Sixties GI-garage-rock obscurities the Monks ("Drugs in My Pocket," "Nice Face, Shame About the Legs"); Thelonious Monk; plainchanting monks. Songs called "Night Train" by Wes Montgomery & Jimmy Smith, the Ventures, Oscar Peterson, James Brown, Guns N' Roses, the Bill Black Combo, Boots Randolph, and Bruce Cockburn. Vivaldi compositions performed by Yo-Yo Ma (with Bobby McFerrin), Wynton Marsalis, Mike Oldfield, and an anonymous techno producer. A Rolling Stones unreleased Decca live album from 1972. Freestyles from the Wu-Tang Clan. Forty or 50 Anal Cunt songs. Eighties thrash kings Nuclear Assault covering Venom. A bootleg of the Beatles practicing "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." Bob Dylan's "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues." Elvis stoned out of his gourd and forgetting the words to "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Prince and Miles Davis doing "Let's Go Crazy" at Paisley Park.

Everyone, it seems, has two favorite Napster stories. The first is about that initial, mad rush of discovery, like homesteaders staking out their 160 acres. The second story is about some unbelievable obscurity he or she has downloaded -- a white-label Slint live album, or Lowell George on the radio with Linda Ronstadt in 1975. And the overall lure of Napster is something between these two, between the overarching, all-encompassing nature of its enterprise (it's got everything), and the personal specificity of singular buried artifacts (it's got my thing). I know I have at my fingertips access to today's Top 40 (and tomorrow's: as Madonna and Metallica have found out, upcoming singles have a way of making their way onto Napster's lists before their official release). But I also have a mental checklist I run through every time I log on of bands who might show up (and occasionally do!) against the prevailing odds of their making an appearance on a platform as mass-culture-friendly as Napster: Teengenerate, Son House, Backyard Babies, John Zorn.

If pop culture is fragmenting into ever-smaller sub-audiences, Napster seems to be an agent for navigating pop music in an age where consensus is but a memory. You could read Napster as a direct result of that fragmentation: if its runaway popularity says anything about consumer desire, it's that the traditional means that fans rely on to evaluate and keep in touch with the pop market -- radio, MTV, magazines, record stores -- are failing them. It seems obvious to me that the transactions made using Napster constitute a violation of at least the spirit of the copyright laws -- if they didn't, we wouldn't be here. But the major record labels have done such an exquisite job of squeezing profits out of consumers and artists alike that it's hard not to think of this as payback time.

Although Napster is unlikely to displace the industry, it does offer a tantalizing glimpse of what ordinary people might choose to listen to if the industry and its conventions didn't exist. It begins to smooth out the differences in accessibility between such market-imposed distinctions as rare and abundant -- Captain Beefheart outtakes and import B-sides are as accessible as the new 'N Sync album, regardless of how many people want to hear them. The prohibitive costs of manufacture, distribution, and promotion no longer apply, since the only requirement for distributing music via Napster is that a single person own a recording and be willing to share it.

Last Thursday it appeared that the RIAA had finally rung Napster's bell, and a court injunction was in place to take the service off-line. With a mere 27 hours to go, Napster's servers were packed, and it took me a half-dozen attempts to log on. There were 7000 users, 800,000 songs. I typed in searches, frantic: Hellacopters, Gluecifer, Backyard Babies. Results, bingo: the Backyard Babies covering Social Distortion's "Mommy's Little Monster" -- go, get it. More: John Williams conducting the Boston Pops in the Battlestar Galactica theme. Metallica's "Jump in the Fire" live from 1983, with Dave Mustaine on lead vocals; Rob Zombie interviewing Glenn Danzig. I did a search for Sonic Youth and found them backing David Bowie on a version of his "I'm Afraid of Americans"; SY's collaboration with William Burroughs; Pavement doing "Expressway to Yr Skull"; versions of "The Diamond Sea" ranging in length from 3:52 to 11:01; SY's cover of the obscure Nirvana B-side "Moist Vagina"; a live version of "Schizophrenia" recorded in July of 1995.

When I logged off, there was a message on my telephone-answering machine from a friend of mine. She'd recognized my screen name on her upload console. "You're totally downloading Backyard Babies songs from me!" she gushed. It's easy to dismiss the notion that a real community is emerging on the byways of Napster amid the hustle, but this chance encounter, like bumping into an old acquaintance in a crowded subway, seemed to confirm that a community is being built, perhaps even in spite of the software's original purpose. For cheap thrills, you can comb through lists of users and rummage through their libraries, looking for their guilty pleasures, reminding yourself that people's tastes bloom irrespective of the confines of genre and focus groups. The gospel fanatic with Reverend James Cleveland songs out the wazoo who also has Beck's "Sexx Laws." The jazzhead teeming with Ornette Coleman, Arto Lindsay, Dexter Gordon -- and Juliana Hatfield. The black-metal fiend with the Christina Aguilera house remix. Voyeurism reigns: you can listen to Courtney Love ranting on a journalist's answering machine, or Fred Durst chewing out the band Taproot for signing with another label after he'd courted them.

In just a few months, Napster has even begun to foster its own idioms. A genre has emerged on its byways in which two different artists' hits are spliced against each other -- for instance, Metallica's Anti-Nowhere League cover "So What?" answering Britney Spears's "Crazy" -- in a manner that, however frivolous, makes Negativland's infamous U2-sampling culture-jamming stunt appear tame by comparison. Scads of novelty numbers and song parodies are being produced on low budgets by artists who suddenly have a huge audience just a few keystrokes away. There are some two dozen parodies in which Bill Clinton impersonators are heard to sing pop hits -- "Gettin' Sticky with It," "Mo' Booty, Mo' Problems." And that's not the only politics to be found -- there's Winston Churchill's "finest hour" speech, Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, Marilyn Monroe singing happy birthday to JFK, Jello Biafra lecturing on the subject of Mumia Abu Jamal. That, to this particular pirate, is the most astonishing revelation to be found in Napster's cyberspace: the spectacle of free music evolving into a new paradigm of free speech.

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