Rock 'n' Roll Heaven

Rock 'n' Roll Heaven

Rock 'n' Roll Heaven

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
July 31 2000 11:30 PM

Rock 'n' Roll Heaven

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In theory, I should be rooting for the record companies in their battle to squash Napster, the Web site via which music fans snatch copyrighted recordings. I'm a writer, and writers, like musicians, create intellectual property. In a world where people weren't compensated for this property, I would have to do something useful for a living, which would call for a laborious retraining program. Yet, as I try to envision a world without copyright, I must admit to finding it in some ways attractive.

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The standard argument against Napster is that without copyright protection, artists couldn't afford to devote their time to the creation of masterpieces. Especially concerned about this erosion of creativity are members of the band Metallica, who sued Napster. Such concerns inspired me to perform what I call the "Metallicaless World Thought Experiment." This thought experiment involves the following Metallica lyrics:

You know our fans are insane
We are gonna blow this place away
with volume higher
Than anything today the only way
When we start to rock
We never want to stop again

Hit the lights
Hit the lights
Hit the lights

With all our screaming
We are gonna rip right through your brain
We got the lethal power
It is causing you sweet pain Oh sweet pain
When we start to rock
We never want to stop again

Hit the lights [etc.]

OK, here comes the thought experiment. Close your eyes. Imagine a world in which the members of Metallica could not make a living through their art—a world in which this song ("Hit the Lights") did not exist, and indeed, the entire album from which it comes (Kill 'Em All) did not exist. Now try to imagine humankind surviving and even prospering in such a world. Seems possible, right?

You may think I'm just a middle-aged guy who can't relate to the hard-edged lyrics of the younger generation. Wrong! After I did the "Streisandless World Thought Experiment," I was on cloud nine.

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It isn't as if music would cease to be recorded in a world without copyright. A band could give away its songs for free on the Web and still eke out a living by playing concert halls or even small clubs. But, you ask, what kind of people would then be attracted to careers in music? People who love to play music, that's who—including no small number of true artists. In a copyrightless world, the Jimi Hendrixes and Eric Claptons would still be jamming.

In fact, in a copyrightless world, Hendrix himself might still be alive. If rock stars weren't smothered in cash, they wouldn't have all the leisure time that they use to overindulge in drink, drugs, groupies, and (in some cases) existential angst. If not for copyright protection, Kurt Cobain might still be alive, and Courtney Love might never have entered the world's consciousness. A twofer!

Bear in mind that in the current, winner-take-all pop music market, who gets famous and who doesn't has little to do with the quality of the music. Why did the band Counting Crows skyrocket to fame? Because the band's members knew someone who knew Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live. They did the show, and the rest is history. Meanwhile, the 7 billion or so bands roughly as good as Counting Crows—and willing to work for cheap—labor in obscurity.

If you doubt me, go to garageband.com, the home of the unknown musician, and listen to a few of the top-rated songs. You'll soon find a band that's about as good as the currently famous bands in its genre. All it lacks is a Lorne Michaels connection.

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The paradigm I'm touting—that in the digital era, information creators can just give away their data and thus stoke demand for less easily replicable services, such as live performances—has long been touted by John Perry Barlow and Esther Dyson. Barlow, its originator, saw this model in action back when he wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead, whose fans taped concerts, passed the tapes around, and thus drew more people to the concerts.

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In a New York Times column yesterday, Paul Krugman suggested that the Dead were a special case and doubted that Barlow's scenario can apply generally in a post-copyright era. I too am something of a Barlow skeptic. In fact, four years ago, in these very pages, I heaped unmitigated scorn on Barlow's logic. But, in the wake of the Napster controversy, I've decided to stage a partial retreat on this issue and begin tactically mitigating my scorn. One reason is something I came to appreciate while visiting garageband.com: how much the Internet is increasing the efficiency with which a band can convert its virtual listeners—including the downloaders of free music—into paying members of a live audience.

At garageband.com, after listening to music you like, you can easily find out if and when the band is coming to your area. Or you can start with a list of all the bands that are coming to your area, then listen to their free music. If you live in a fairly big city, there's a good chance you'll discover somebody worth seeing. And of course, there are also the various ways chat groups and e-mail can be used to tell fans when favorite bands are headed their way—including bands so low-profile that their performances aren't widely advertised.

Thanks to these new tools, semiobscure bands should increasingly be able to make a living just by touring. No longer do they need a ton of fans in a given city in order to draw a decent turnout there. A tenth of a ton will do, because the Internet can so efficiently convert fans into live audiences. What's more, wholly obscure bands with talent will find it easier to reach the semiobscure threshold, since, as garageband.com illustrates, the Internet so efficiently alerts a band's potential fans to its existence. On balance, I'd expect a post-copyright world to spread fame and money more evenly among musicians—and, in the process, to correlate these things more closely with merit. What's not to like?

In a post-copyright era, live appearances might not be the only way to make money. As the Web goes broadband, even musicians with small audiences will be able to produce live, pay-per-view concerts. In fact, in 10 or 20 years such concerts can be at HDTV-level resolution and in 3-D, creating an increasingly realistic virtual experience. (Presumably, experiencing the concert live, rather than the next day, will be something people are willing to pay for. Bootlegged one-second-time-lag telecasts? A conceivable hole in this business plan, I guess.)

There are two reasons that I can face-savingly refrain from wholly endorsing the Barlow/Dyson model. One is that, as I stressed in the 1996 Slate column, we're not yet in a post-copyright world, and it is. The second problem with the Barlow/Dyson model is the one Krugman flagged: the question of its generality. Though I do think the Grateful Dead model can work more or less throughout the music world, that is because music is inherently a performance art. What about other creative acts, such as writing books? What would the publishing world look like in a post-copyright era, with everyone able to download E-books for free? I will explore such a world later this week in a column tentatively titled "Tuesdays Without Morrie?"