Coop's Corner: The future of music -- post Napster

Here are my thoughts about a post-Napster world.

Maybe the best solution is to call in Air Force One and hustle the central participants in the Napster debate off to Camp David for a couple of weeks.

Even then, don't get too optimistic about the chances of a negotiated settlement anytime soon.

The best and the brightest minds in the music industry are grappling with the challenge posed by Napster to find a way to bridge the yawning gap that still separates the opposing sides. But in this clash over the question of digital rights management, there isn't much confusion about what's at issue. In fact, the two sides understand each other quite clearly -- which is why the dispute has ended up in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

That's why finding a way out of this thorn patch is oh-so-tricky. For instance, Nicholas Butterworth, the president and CEO of the MTVi Group, is one who remains hopeful that the two sides in the Napster controversy will eventually hammer out a negotiated settlement. But still, Butterworth remains conflicted about the rights and wrongs stemming from the case.

"I can't say, let all the music be free," he said in a speech to a gathering of executives organized by Red Herring Magazine. "What happens when the quality of a file (on the Internet) is identical to the quality of a file on a CD?"

Good question, and one very much on the minds of music execs. They know that the logical conclusion would be the upset of a lucrative business model that has created billions of dollars for the studios.

So it is not surprising that most of the anti-Napster noise has been generated by the vested interests who are not eager to give up their control over music distribution. Indeed, it would be a shock if they did not fight tooth and nail to protect the profitable role they have established as gatekeepers.

The surprise is that the music biz is not a monolithic camp and the Napster phenomenon has supporters among musicians and rainmakers who are willing to consider a change in the system.

"It's really crazy, but I see a lot of people trying to hold onto something old," said the Rap musician Ice T, one of the artists in favor of letting Napster develop on its own. "Basically the major [studios] just want in on the Internet...they know what's up."

You bet they do.

The real issue is about control. In a way, the resistance of the studios resembles the position adopted by their Hollywood brethren when the VCR was first introduced. At the time, the big studios rang four-bell alarms and pulled out their hair at the prospect of unfettered taping. (Why, we can't let people own tapes because then they won't go to movies!) As it turned out, VCRs had exactly the opposite effect.

The most promising signpost out of this morass may be to borrow the model used in television where cable and pay-per-view coexist quite profitably with free TV. Some thirty years ago, many of the subscribers paying for cable service did so because they couldn't pick up free TV signals in their neighborhoods. Nowadays millions of Americans willingly fork over $40 to $80 every month for television even though they can receive basic TV for free.

I doubt whether the Napster-is-theft camp will willingly come around to that position without a cattle prod. Too much money is up for grabs. But the undeniable reality is that the fight for free digital access to music is too far along to get short-circuited by a court order.


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