when you think of the head-on collisions between the music industry and the Internet over the past year, a couple of stories stand out. They're closely related, and both remind us that those who get us our music must either change or die in 2003. When the year began, the music biz was still riding high on its silencing of the notorious file-sharing site Napster. Those celebrations lasted for about a minute, until sites like Morpheus, KaZaA and the mighty Audiogalaxy popped up in Napster's place. The same went for so-called copy-protected CDs that wouldn't play in computers -- until someone discovered that running an ordinary black marker around the rim short-circuited the program.
For several months the industry seemed overwhelmed by the virulence of these replacement sites. With minimal searching, it was possible to find virtually any piece of music, officially released or not, and download it onto your hard drive. In one of the most flagrant breaches of security, complete copies of the latest Oasis album began arriving in my e-mail in-box in the spring, a full five months before the album was to hit shelves and before many people who worked for Oasis's record company had actually heard it.
Bootlegging is a legitimate concern (hence, major record labels like Universal now refuse to provide journalists with advance review copies of upcoming releases for fear of online leaks), but the labels' deepest fear of online music remains accessibility. Speak to anyone who regularly downloads music from the Net and they'll rant and rave about being able to hear any piece of music any time.
Jonesing for some vintage Clash or Lee Perry? Can't remember the second verse of Here Comes My Baby? A few clicks and you're singing along. Would these people go out and buy the Clash record for one song? No, but they'd probably pay a fee to have access to all that music.
What's so stunning is how the industry completely dropped the ball on this. 2002 was supposed to be the year major record labels and their litigious watchdogs stepped up with their replacements for sites like Napster and Audiogalaxy.
Now, a couple years after downloading truly took off, the music biz still hasn't provided a suitable pay substitute. The available sites, including PressPlay, offer just the hits, don't allow you to burn CDs and generally act as if the whims and wants of online music fans simply didn't exist. It seems the best they can do is return to the realm of $4 CD singles to try to get fans to pay for the one song they want.
There are some promising forward moves, including Universal's recent decision to start directly compensating artists for downloaded music, but it's a very tentative step.
This will be a defining year for the music industry and its relationship to new technology. Despite the demise of Audiogalaxy, sites like KaZaA and Grokster, which also allows users to trade movies, are stronger than ever. The reality is that labels will have to find a way to work with music fans or risk being made increasingly obsolete.
The other main online music story only shows how easy this can be. After a few tentative forays in 2001, 2002 was the year of the mash-up, the furious, unlicensed splicing of tracks by Missy Elliott and AC/DC, Nirvana and Destiny's Child, and Eminem and everyone.
These freaky fusions, first available exclusively online and then on a series of underground CDs, seemed to plow head-on into the industry's tight-fisted Net music restrictions, the pirates seemingly flaunting their access to every piece of music and their ability to do whatever they wanted with it.
Labels were vexed, and fans loved it. Sound familiar? email@example.com