The MP3 Phenomena and Innovative Music

The U.S.-based Napster file-sharing service has recently been the focus of much of the record industry’s wrath. Napster provides a central server for millions of users worldwide to post their soundfiles and offer these soundfiles for free download to other users. Until recently, Napster did not monitor what was traded, thus, according to the opinions of the industry, massive copyright infringement was occurring. In 1999, the International Federation of Phonographic Industries claimed that around three million tracks were downloaded from the Internet every day, most of them without the permission of their copyright holders.

In March 2001, as part of the fall-out from a lawsuit by four of the five major corporate recording conglomerates in the U.S., Napster was ordered to block trading of songs that were property of those corporations. Notably, only the property of the major corporations was affected by this move. Independent labels and independent artists still have no protection. But is this really a bad thing?

Two weeks before the court order was enforced, I searched for Napster users that were trading contemporary music. While searches for lesser-known composers’ works yielded few or no results, I found that there were multitudes of downloads available for many established innovative artists. Over the course of three days I logged in the names of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, and my own composition teacher, Alvin Lucier. Each day I found in excess of 100 downloads available for Stockhausen and Zorn, around 100 available of Braxton’s music and an average of about 15 downloads available for the music of Lucier. I thought this was pretty shocking, considering that Napster participants were supposed to be lazy listeners to mindless popular music who were just interested in getting the latest Britney Spears tune for free.

I convened a focus group of seventeen Napster participants, via the “chat” services provided on Napster. I interviewed people who were sharing free downloads of one or more of the following artists:

Anthony Braxton
John Cage
Fred Frith
Mauricio Kagel
Alvin Lucier
Roscoe Mitchell
Meredith Monk
Ikue Mori
Pauline Oliveros
Karlheinz Stockhausen
John Zorn

I felt that this group of composers and improvisers gave a broad representation of various tastes in contemporary and experimental music.

I interviewed my focus group on the guarantee of anonymity. The members of the group came from around the world: six from Europe, seven from North America, two from Central and South America, one from Asia and one from Australia. Though all the respondents seemed to have some familiarity with the genre, and indicated an interest in innovative music as a whole, four respondents had listened to the music of these particular composers for the first time through Napster. The respondents had located these composers through looking at the shared-files of users who had other works they liked.

Twelve of the respondents said that it was difficult or impossible to obtain this kind of contemporary music in record stores in their geographic area. Price was also a problem. Five respondents claimed that since most contemporary music was imported in their area, it caused significant price increases, and another nine respondents claimed that the prices of contemporary music CDs in general were too expensive. Two respondents said that while affordability was not a problem for them, the music they were seeking was simply unavailable commercially. (This would make sense in light of the many contemporary works that languish out-of-print for years, the original labels now defunct or unwilling to invest in products they see as low-profit.)

Several respondents indicated that participation in Napster had opened up opportunities to hear artists that they would have never have heard otherwise. When asked about other contemporary artists that file sharing had led them to, the lists included Gyorgy Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Luc Ferrari, Henri Pousseur, Brian Ferneyhough, Charles Ives, Morton Feldman, Derek Bailey, Harry Partch, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett, Bob Ostertag, Iva Bittova, La Monte Young and many more.

Twelve respondents said they would purchase more recordings by these or other contemporary artists because of hearing the music through Napster. Most of the respondents said that exposure to contemporary music on Napster had led them to buy more CDs by contemporary artists in general. They also indicated that they would prefer a CD to the MP3 file, because of better sound quality and the availability of liner notes.

One of my Napster focus group members, a student located in the Saskatchewan province of Canada, gave the following comments concerning file sharing of contemporary music on Napster:

“One of the main things here is cost and geographical location. This music is expensive to order where I am. I spend lots of money on it already so I feel okay about downloading what I can through Napster. It can also remove various cultural and social barriers that can prevent one from being exposed to certain music. The sharing of music online has greatly assisted me in maintaining my ever expanding curiosity. It (Napster) also keeps me informed of what’s happening all around the world in music.”

It is not my desire to argue whether file sharing is moral or immoral. My research indicates that file sharing is exposing more people to contemporary and experimental music, and it has also probably increased CD sales. File sharing could possibly improve, rather than destroy, the distribution of music by innovative artists.