Monday, November 28, 2005

Free Access to Music Will Help

Original Chimes Article Here

For over a year now the frenzied cries of record company executives have been echoed by columnists of the mainstream media. The Internet has potentially brought the next phase in the evolution of the music industry with the arrival of Napster and other similar sites which allow music fans to download songs for free. Ever since, record companies have been spinning doomsday predictions blaming Napster for the death of music.

Napster offers some exciting possibilities. We live in a culture that glorifies and romanticizes the value of music. Most people’s attitude towards music can be summed up by the bumper sticker: “without music, life would not be worth living.” It is therefore somewhat disturbing to think of music as a commodity that is bought and sold on the market.

But that is precisely how the system operates. New CDs are often given inflated prices and sold to those who can afford them. With the advent of Napster, people are beginning to question if music is something that should be bought and sold, or if it is something that should be available to everyone regardless of economic status. Some claim that music should be free to the people.

Admittedly, as long as the digital divide still exists, these are hollow arguments. Anyone who can afford to buy a computer to download new music could probably also afford to buy a few CDs. However, if some of the arguments by the more passionate Napsterites seem a little silly, the arguments by the record companies -- that music can only survive under big businesses -- is even more ridiculous.

The argument the record companies and many mainstream journalists make is simple. If music fans can get free music over the internet, they will not go out and buy the CD. This will financially hurt the musicians who make the music. Of course, many of us think these rock stars are rich enough already, so the record company has wisely chosen not to showcase Britney Spears or N’Sync as targets for our sympathy. It is the new, emerging artists we are supposed to feel sorry for. The ones who would not get signed at all if there wasn’t a compassionate record company who wanted to give them a chance. These new artists would suffer. After all, who would buy their songs if they were given away for free?

This is not the first time these arguments have been presented. The record companies were screaming these same gloom and doom predictions during the advent of radio. Who would buy music if you could just hear it for free on the radio? Now artists compete with each other for radio time since radio time is free advertising, hopefully leading to the musician performing concerts at sold out venues. Granted Napster is a different medium than radio, and brings with it different concerns, but we should be careful before being too quick to condemn it.

The artist actually gets surprisingly little from every CD that is sold. Most of that money goes to the record companies and other intermediaries along the way.

For many artists, the majority of their revenue comes from touring. Roger McGuinn, lead singer for the Byrds, recently testified to this effect before Congress. Even when the Byrds were topping the record charts in the mid-60s, they still had to tour just to make ends meet. It is clear the fight over CD copyrights means more to the recording industry then it does to the musicians.

Napster offers free advertising to bands, but more importantly it offers more diversity in music. Have you listened to the radio recently? It is dominated by a few bands who all sound remarkably similar to each other. Without getting into the politics of radio play, it is safe to say that the radio has helped a lot of no -talent bands perform in huge stadiums, while many more talented musicians are still playing coffee houses. With Napster, there is no DJ deciding what music gets played when, but the listener decides what music to listen to and how often to listen to it.

As Napster makes music more accessible, I can’t imagine this could do anything but help music as an art form. Never before has more accessibility to an art caused a decline in the quality of that art. Music should be no exception.

Nor will Napster mean the end of CDs. Blank tapes have been around just as long as CDs, and yet when I walk into a Calvin dorm room I seldom see rows and rows of blank tapes. Even those college students who have access to CD burners often prefer to go out and buy the official album. We like holding something new and shiny in our hands. We like looking at the album jacket, and impressing our friends with our official looking music collection.

Napster and other sites similar to it could potentially be the greatest thing that has ever happened to music. That is, if the record companies and their team of lawyers don’t dismantle it first.

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