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Lost in Cyberspace

Napster, Part 2

© 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz

Recently I decided that if I wanted to continue listening to golden oldies after I became one myself, I needed to update my music collection. I could spend hundreds of dollars buying CDs to replace my aging records and tapes, or maybe I could go onto the Internet and download MP3 files of my favorite songs for free.

MP3 is a technology that compresses sound files so they are small enough to be sent over the Internet without losing perceptible sound quality. If my favorite songs were available in MP3, I could shrink the mass of my music collection -- and my stereo -- nearly to zero. Except for speakers or earphones, the only space my golden oldies would take up in my cramped nursing home room would be on my hard drive.

But even though a few bands have released MP3s, none of the major labels have made their vast music libraries available in the format. They oppose MP3 for the same reason they have opposed every new technology since the phonograph -- the ease with which copies can be made. Thus, most MP3 files on the Internet are bootleg copies made by "rippers," people who take songs off CDs and convert them into MP3 files. Some bootleg MP3s can be found at Web sites, but most are stored on the hard drives of the people who listen to them.

Enter Created about a year ago by a 19-year-old college freshman, Shawn Fanning, Napster lets people trade all those MP3 files stored on each other's personal (or school) computers. Frankly, when I first signed on to Napster I wasn't expecting much. I'm just an old codger whose music appreciation began to atrophy when the Beatles broke up. While I was interested in '60s rock, protest songs, blues, jazz and classical, I figured all that would be available on the computers of rippers and techno-savvy teenagers would be the latest head-banging music from Metallica <> or Dr. Dre <> (who have both sued Napster for copyright violations). So when I typed in the name of 1950's sick comedian Lenny Bruce and Napster's search engine came up empty, I wasn't surprised.

Next I tried a simpler search, "Beatles," and found a bunch of titles. Choosing one at random, I downloaded "All My Loving." To my delight, it turned out not to be the original record but the band's first appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show," complete with Sullivan's introduction and pubescent screams throughout.

Next I looked for an early Jefferson Airplane album, "Surrealistic Pillow," and was again pleasantly surprised to find not only the two hits off the album, "Somebody to Love" and "Go Ask Alice," but also my favorite inside tracks, "Today" and "Coming Back to Me." "Wooden Ships," turned up both the Crosby, Stills and Nash and Jefferson Airplane versions, plus a live performance by the Airplane at the Fillmore West on May 7, 1970, just days after the Kent State Massacre.

Anthems like The Youngbloods' "Let's Get Together" and Don McLean's "American Pie," rare recordings like "White Bird" from It's a Beautiful Day, one-hit wonders like Lenny Welch's "Since I Fell For You," even obscure instrumentals like "Apache" by Jorgen Ingman and His Guitar, no problemo. And within seconds of typing "Simon Dylan," Napster unearthed bootleg live duets of "Sounds of Silence" by Paul Simon and Bob Dylan recorded during last year's concert tour.

The more I probed Napster, the more amazed I became by the quality and diversity of ripped recordings already available in MP3, and not just '60s rock and heavy metal, but jazz, blues, hip hop, rap, folk, country, comedy, classic, you name it. I'm not a Frank Sinatra fan, but I liked his rendition of "Old Man River," which I heard on PBS during pledge week. Sure enough, some ripper had made an MP3 of Sinatra singing the song, while others had live Rat Pack recordings with Sammy Davis and Dean Martin. 

Don't get the wrong impression. Hundreds of thousands of people may be using Napster (that's hundreds of thousands of computers with hundreds of songs per computer), but it is still in testing and has lots of glitches. Unless you have a high-speed connection, downloads are slow, failures are frequent and computer crashes periodic. There's no quality control and scant documentation, much less liner notes or cover art. See a file titled "It Ain't Me Babe" and you won't know whether it is the Bob Dylan or Sonny and Cher version, or perhaps a live Dylan and Joan Baez duet circa 1964. Some MP3s end halfway through the song while others have been recorded off old scratchy records.

Still, over a single weekend I was able to download just about every recording I desired, including a slew of Lenny Bruce routines. I also stumbled over treasures I wasn't looking for, like Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River" at Carnegie Hall. I could go on, but the point is that even without the cooperation of the music industry, much of America's rich musical heritage has already been digitized by rippers. The courts will judge whether that is illegal, and society will decide whether it is immoral. For each time a Paul Robeson, Lenny Bruce or Metallica MP3 is copied to another computer, the preservation and availability of that recording is further enhanced. Maybe as precious a cultural commodity as art is too valuable to be owned by record companies or even the artists themselves. And maybe Napster is one more way of ensuring they can't take away our music.

Copyright 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.

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