BOOKS: Sound of things to come - Napster and gnutella are said to be ringing the death-knell of the record industry, but Robert Sandall thinks the last rites may be some way off

BOOKS: Sound of things to come - Napster and gnutella are said to be ringing the death-knell of the record industry, but Robert Sandall thinks the last rites may be some way off - Sonic Boom: Napster, P2P and the Battle for the Future of Music; By John Al

by ROBERT SANDALL, director, communications, Virgin Records
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Sonic Boom: Napster, P2P and the Battle for the Future of Music; By John Alderman; Fourth Estate; pounds 16.99

The digital encoding of music has turned out to be a mixed blessing for what is often still referred to, anachronistically, as the global record industry. Having profited enormously from the advent of the compact disc in the early 1980s, large companies and small labels alike have struggled recently to come to terms with newer digital formats that do not need to be lasered onto shiny bits of plastic before they can be heard.

The most problematic of the new arrivals, from the industry's point of view, has been a compression technology that was originally designed in 1987 to shrink bulky video files for use with multimedia. By the law of unintended consequences, MP3 (as it is now known) has been far more widely adopted over the past four years as a container for music and one that lends itself to easy and swift transmission over the internet.

How easy? Put a compact disc in the ROM drive of your PC. Convert it, using the appropriate legally available software, into an MP3 file and you can then e-mail it as an attachment anywhere in the world, to as many people as you like. They can download and play it themselves on a domestic hi-fi - using one of many MP3 players on the market for around pounds 150 - and they can also forward it to other webbed-up chums. Because it's digitised, there will be no degradation in sound quality as your file travels further into cyberspace. And at no point in its voyage will any money have changed hands.

The implications of this sort of transaction for any business that deals in copyrighted material are clearly worrying. The fact that novel technologies appeal more intensely to younger people - the same group who listen obsessively to pop and rock music - has thrust the music industry first into the eye of this coming storm. And though you would never guess it from John Alderman's sloppily biased account, the industry is weathering it reasonably well.

The 'file-sharing' service known as Napster, which facilitates and organises the distribution and exchange of MP3 copies of CDs over the internet, has been repeatedly found by the American courts to be in breach of copyright law. Other similar services are now being legally challenged - as they have to be if the principle of copyright is to be upheld. Obstructing this traffic in free goods has not been popular with the kids, nor has it played particularly well with the media.

For reasons that defy rational explanation, the notion that expensively produced music needs to be paid for, just as films, computer games and holidays do, meets with a lot of resistance these days from sophomorish writers such as Alderman. He seems to think that MP3 is a justifiable punishment for an industry that needs to 'make up for a century of screwing its artists'. If only. Sad to report, he is commenting here on a high-risk business that loses vast and unrecoupable sums on 90% of the artists it signs up.

Alderman airs a number of other naive propositions and prejudices in the course of what is otherwise a well-researched but poorly coloured story. Music execs are relentlessly painted as greedy Luddites; the new techie inventors, on the other hand, are hailed in the title of the American version of the book as New Pioneers of Music, which, since none of them can play a note, is just nonsense.

Yes, the industry has looked a bit flat-footed in its attempts to use the world wide web as a vehicle for selling its wares, but then, nobody has found it easy to extract cash from web users. They seem to regard cyberspace as freebie land. And are their patrons really as altruistic as they seem? Greed, usually ignored by Alderman, lies just beneath the surface of many of these buccaneering net music scams.

The venture capitalists at Hummer Winblad who invested dollars 15 million in Napster weren't interested in free music; they saw the opportunity of building a brand, hooking plenty of users and then turning the whole enterprise into a subscription-based service. Which is exactly what is happening now - too late for this book, unfortunately.

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