Fifteen years of 'Utopia': Napster and Pitchfork as technologies of democratization
First Monday

Fifteen years of 'Utopia': Napster and Pitchfork as technologies of democratization by David Carter and Ian Rogers



Abstract
The legacy of Napster is filled with bold claims that continue to circulate. As recently as 2013, Wired writer Angela Watercutter described the service as “strings of code that forever changed the relationship between technology and music.” In this paper, we set out to problematize this narrative by outlining a seldom–reported pre–history of Napster combined with an expanded examination of the alternative legacies surrounding the platform. One such legacy is the rise of eclectic music criticism portal Pitchfork.com, a media entity (and business model) that similarly traded on a revolutionary backstory.

Contents

Introduction
Digital ash in a digital urn?
Perfect sound forever
The ‘new’ institution of Pitchfork
All this has happened before. All this will happen again.
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

In a July 2000 piece for Rolling Stone, music journalist Fred Goodman spoke with various recording industry professionals about the Internet’s role in the future of music. Tracking back, the ‘incredible’ rise of peer–to–peer file–sharing application Napster is clearly shocking to Goodman’s respondents. That three–quarters of American college students would use the service ‘at least once a month’ to download MP3 files and thus impinge on massive corporate investment is pitched as, at best, a wake–up call to industry and more plainly, as dishonest and illegal. A particularly telling quip from Metallica manager and industry stalwart Cliff Bernstein states the objection openly, “Napster never came to an artist and said, We’re starting a company to offer this service, would you like to be involved?” When Goodman turns to Napster for a response, he carefully describes the company’s then CEO Hank Barry and his credentials in copyright law and venture capital. The tone of the piece is clear: this is a battle waged within American business, wealthy old guard versus flush upstart.

Within the chaos of this corporate battle, lay Napster’s co–founders: coder and hacker Shawn Fanning, his uncle John Fanning (who owned a 70 percent share of the company) and manager and fellow hacker Sean Parker. In the various histories of Napster, John Fanning’s role is somewhat diminished. The vast majority of media attention the service received focused on Fanning and Parker, especially their age and inexperience. Their naivety is central to the mythology of Napster; it completely foreshadows accompanying notions of their coding genius and conceptual forethought. In MTV interviews and another piece in Rolling Stone from 2000, Fanning and Parker are presented as young nerds and music fans, living rough in a “modestly ratty” bachelor pad, more interested in the potential of their creation than the capital flowing around them (Sheffield, 2000). Within the broader history of music technology, Shawn Fanning, in particular, has become synonymous with Napster’s initial user base. He is portrayed repeatedly as the kid who wanted to share music from his dorm room and invented the code to get it done.

The tone and character of this origin story — and the remarkably similar one anchoring Pitchfork.com — underpin the primary argument of this paper. What we aim to complicate here is the delicate and oft–obscured relations that reside within these two conjoined origin stories. By situating both Napster and Pitchfork within a longer and broader history of music business and technology, we set out to problematize the concept of these businesses as discrete sets of democratizing potentialities. Instead we outline a seldom–reported pre–history of Napster and combine this with an expanded examination of the alternative legacies surrounding the platform in the years since its bankruptcy. One such legacy is the rise of eclectic music criticism portal Pitchfork.com, a media entity (and business model) that trades on the same revolutionary backstory and found fast root in the post–Napster media landscape. Ultimately we argue that the emergence and popularity of both Napster and Pitchfork may still be perceived by many as transformative moments but with the passing of time the culture of music has travelled a long arc back to many of the same institutionalized power relations these platforms appeared to disassemble.

 

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Digital ash in a digital urn?

In the years following the industry panic evidenced in Goodman’s (2000) Rolling Stone article, Napster has become emblematic of a number of conflated technological developments and social phenomena, both championed and reviled as the harbinger of economic disruption in music, film and television industries. Chief among these developments is the advent of consumer technology capable of cheaply and easily duplicating (and creating) digital media, the widespread availability and adoption of high–speed Internet connections, and the popularization of codecs that enabled audio and video to be distributed over the resulting networks (see Hesmondhalgh, 2011).

Despite the mythos that surrounds Napster’s development and the subsequent legal contest, we argue that the technical or cultural proposition presented by Napster was nothing new at the time. The illegal copying and distribution of recorded music, through networks of fans, enabled by widely available consumer technology had been a reality for the music industries for some time. Both Internet relay chat (IRC) and the Usenet network predate Napster by more than a decade and both were used to distribute copies of digital goods among a network of peers in violation of copyright legislation. Jon Cooper and Daniel Harrison (2001), for example describe in some detail the mechanics of audio piracy that pre–dated Napster; this was conducted via IRC and FTP servers, often hosted on the computers of individual users. This activity was enabled via peer–to–peer networks as a matter of course as this “was the norm, not the exception, for the flow of online information” [1]. Similarly, the MP3 file format had been around since the early 1990s and was itself based on psychoacoustic masking codecs developed in the 1980s (Sterne, 2006). Positioning Napster within a broader political, economic and cultural discourse, Spitz and Hunter (2006) argue that “far from the ‘disruptive’ event many have portrayed it to be, Napster was to an extent predetermined and controlled by this vast network of exogenous factors, many of which were tacit and unknowable even to its inventors” [2].

Instead, Napster’s novel contribution to the history of online distribution of digital goods has much to do with the profile the site maintained and its time–and–resource–rich user base, in addition to the many narratives of digital disruption that conveniently take Sean Fanning’s dorm room as their genesis (for example, Goodman, 2000; Greenfeld, 2000; Kot, 2009; Sheffield, 2000; Wikström, 2009). Common to many of these narratives are two key elements. Firstly that Napster and, online distribution of recorded works more generally, disrupted the economics of the recorded music industries. Secondly, that this disruption proposed a democratizing effect by leveling the playing field in an industry dominated by major labels who control the means of production and distribution for recorded works, alongside a history of corrupt dealings that distorted the marketplace. For example, Karl Greenfeld’s 2000 article for Time argues that Fanning aimed to “bypass the rats’ nest of legal and technical problems that kept great music from busting out all over the World Wide Web,” and that Napster had, “changed the world,” by “forc[ing] record companies to rethink their business models.”

Greenfield’s observations are echoed in much scholarly writing and Burkart and McCourt draw attention to the “hodgepodge of literature coalesced in response to the Napster phenomenon, gleefully describing peer–to–peer (P2P) technology’s subversion of existing industrial practices and celebrating the Internet as an untrammeled garden of abundance” [3]. Despite legal action and vocal criticism from artists such as Metallica, a strata of the music industry welcomed Napster as “a long–overdue democratic response to an industry that had built a business on exploiting artists” [4]. Buoyed by high profile success stories of new and established artists using file sharing and online distribution to bypass the major label system, musicians, fans and critics extolled the bright future ushered in by online distribution:

The new model is plain as day. More music for more people at a lower price. And, fascinatingly, this delivers more money to producers. But those who grew up in the CD world just can’t fathom the change, just can’t understand it ... Time to move into the future, a land of riches ... although these old cats will get paid for music in their companies’ catalogues, they will not rule music in the future. Because not only is production and distribution available to everyone, they just don’t get it. [5]

We should have known better. As Paul Théberge warned before the advent of Napster and Pitchfork, “there has long been a tendency to equate simple technical improvement or the increased distribution of consumer goods in capitalist society with greater levels of freedom and democracy” [6].

 

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Perfect sound forever

After more than a decade of scholarship the precise impact of file–sharing networks on the market for digital media is unclear. Debate in the music industries ranges from proponents who argue file–sharing is responsible for all woes experienced by record labels (Liebowitz, 2008), to others who suggest file sharing has had positive net–effect on record sales (Peoples, 2011). Scholars, such as Jim Rogers (2013) and Hesmondhalgh (2011), propose further complicating factors such as recession and financial crises in the U.S., Asia and Latin America; natural decline in demand for CD players; and supermarket chains entering the music retail space. Despite these conflicting accounts there remains a dominant portrayal of file–sharing as fundamentally undermining the profitability of established companies:

What is clear is that unauthorized file–sharing over peer–to–peer (P2P) networks that do not remunerate artists, composers, producers and rights holders, while potentially violating copyright laws, have thrown into question the very existence of the traditional music business model. [7]

The latter half of the twentieth century has seen dramatic economic transformations of both the production and consumption of recordings. Reproduction and distribution costs of digital recordings has approached zero while the tools for creating those recordings have become accessible, cheap and widespread (for those with the type of computer access and leisure time generally associated with middle class life in a developed economy). This second point is often overlooked in the discussion of the state of the recording industry. Music recording studios, as traditionally conceived, are becoming an increasingly difficult and unprofitable business; undercut by talented ‘amateurs’ at the same time as budgets are affected by decreasing returns further downstream. However, at their core, these changes are due to entirely predictable outworkings of market forces on the production and sale of information goods. Writing almost a decade before Napster, economist Paul Romer (1990) argued that technological change will drive down the cost of replicating information goods until, without creating artificial barriers such as copy protection, their value will approach zero. Romer’s observations perfectly describe what happened in the recording industries post–Napster. As he pointed out in 2002:

The fundamental good produced by the re–cording [sic] industry is literally a bit string, a long sequence of 0’s and 1’s. Like any nonrival good, it comes packaged together with rival goods. A firm can ship a bit string on CDs or transmit it over the Internet. Either delivery method requires rival goods: plastic disks and trucks in the first case, computer servers and wires in the second. Additional units require additional delivery costs. However, once the bit of string exists, it can be reused, at no additional cost, to make copies for millions, even billions, of people. [8]

Despite what should have been obvious, the marketplace was slow to realize the implications of digital audio. AT&T engineer Harry Nyquist (1928) outlined a theory for binary encoding and reproduction of analog signals, using square waves transmitted over telegraph wires. Although concerned with telecommunications, Nyquist’s theory holds for digital audio and states that if a system is required to carry signals from 20Hz up to 20kHz (supposedly the theoretical lower and upper limits of human hearing), then the sampling rate (the number of samples taken per second) must be at least twice that — say 40kHz. Assuming suitable quality converters, sufficient resolution and storage is available, digital recordings could produce exact copies of all the information within this bandwidth without distortion (Watkinson, 1998). As such, for many years, the only thing constraining unauthorized duplication of music was a lack of storage space for data.

When Sony and Philips introduced the compact disc to the consumer marketplace they were sowing the wind that Napster would whip into a maelstrom. Given the inverse trajectories of Internet speed and storage cost, it was only ever a matter of time before the cost of duplication and distribution of recordings was rendered marginal (Rogers, 2013). As evidenced by Napster the recording industry’s response was to attempt to artificially constrain the supply of digital recordings through legal action and copy protection (Sheffield, 2000). Predictably these approaches proved unsuccessful and there are currently a plurality of online retailers such as the iTunes Music Store and Amazon, subscription services such as Rhapsody, direct–to–fan solutions such as Bandcamp; and streaming services such as Spotify and Beats, alongside the continued presence of file–sharing networks.

Interestingly, the post–CD market for recorded music has also exhibited diversification around fidelity, with a vocal group of consumers and producers claiming that codecs such as MP3 and AAC sacrifice quality for convenience. This has seen a resurgence in “analog” vinyl releases (often recorded, and mastered digitally) alongside a push towards higher bit depth, faster sample rate PCM audio (DVD–Audio, HDCD, SACD) and lossless formats such as Apple Lossless, FLAC and Neil Young’s PonoMusic player. PonoMusic is notable for its value proposition, boldly claiming that “nothing is lost, but everything is gained,” and boasting, “resolutions up to thirty times that of an MP3” (PonoMusic, 2014). In context of Romer’s observations however these can also be understood as attempts to create rival goods to digital recordings, through embedding the recordings in a physical format that cannot be easily duplicated, or by shifting to increasingly higher resolution formats tied to specific playback media, thus enabling rights holders to resell their back catalogue to consumers.

Concurrently, the production costs associated with digital “recordings” have plummeted due to the digitalization of the means of production (recording software) and a concerted push by Digidesign, Apple and other professional audio software manufacturers into the ‘prosumer’ market. This trend coincided with the availability of increasingly inexpensive recording hardware due to lower labor and component costs in developing economies, most notably mainland China. There is widespread recognition that this has “complicated the categories ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ ... [facilitating] consumers’ movement toward an even greater level of engagement with popular culture, as DJ’s, archivists, distributors, and critics” [9]. The lowered barriers to entry offered by the online space have resulted in torrents of user–generated content and opinion, much of it grist for Facebook and curated spaces such as Buzzfeed and Tumblr. This ‘democratization’ of media production has delivered an accompanying cacophony of voices, occupying some of the critical register previously dominated by traditional (print and television) media. From within this contested media landscape comes Pitchfork.com.

 

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The ‘new’ institution of Pitchfork

The story of popular online music criticism portal Pitchfork follows a similar trajectory to Napster. Pitchfork is a post–Napster business and the links between to two are significant. As brands, both relied heavily on a certain revolutionary zeal and as shown, both exploited a particular moment in music history — via online technologies — to corral a degree of brand authority and iconoclasm. As the previous section revealed, Napster were not the arch–originators of music sharing online; they were the first to marry the concept to capital and — for a period — a workable, valuable brand proposition. So too with Pitchfork.

Pitchfork’s origin story is similarly rooted in a sense of happenstance and forethought. The Pitchfork that stands today, is often cited as a descendent of current editor/owner Ryan Schreiber’s blog. For example, the pitch made to readers by Columbia Journalism Review writer Kiera Butler (2006) is remarkably similar in tone to early Napster reportage:

In 1995, Ryan Schreiber was nineteen and fresh out of a lackluster high school career, with no real desire to go to college. So from his childhood bedroom he launched Pitchfork, posting a few reviews every month and interviewing every band he could badger into talking. After a few months, he began updating the site daily, and for the next few years he worked part–time as a telemarketer in the evenings so he could build Pitchfork during the day. [10]

After almost two decades, Pitchfork remains independently owned by Schreiber. Additionally, it trades on a certain brand of independent music discovery; within the larger media ecosystem of music journalism, promotion and criticism, in which Pitchfork competes, the site remains noticeably unique in its majority attention to emerging artists. Compared to established banners like Rolling Stone and Spin, and the diminishing critical expertise applied to music in broadsheet newspapers, Pitchfork remains a clearly unique proposition: a well–trafficked [11], well–publicized Web site that has built its brand legacy on the discovery and championing of new music.

Yet within a broader scope, one that makes a fuller account of the vast amount of shared critical opinion and commentary online (in large part provoked by digital distribution and sharing), Pitchfork is a much more traditional organ. As Schreiber relays (Lindvall, 2010), the site’s impetus comes from the flux and scatter of zine writing filtered through the dawn of online music commentary. Yet in recent years, the editorial of the site aims for a classical and vertical form of critical authority, placing it squarely in line with traditional outlets. The history of this change, Pitchfork’s rise from glorified blog to institution, remains largely obscured. Richard Beck (2011), writing for N+1, has provided one of the more thorough accounts of this, describing the transition in clear terms: Schreiber capitalized on a particular moment in history to dramatically expand his reach. The catalyst driving this moment was Napster’s sudden oversupply of music, wherein Pitchfork positioned itself as a type of encyclopedia; a searchable, more extensive archive of opinion. This is a commercial proposition predicated on online publishing and music distribution; both acutely draw attention by leveraging abundance. Schrieber’s ability to gauge the temperature of that still–emergent online music culture back in the late 1990s, and then service it with daily news and reviews (at least four a day since 1999) proved potent and established the brand. In the years since, as Beck (2011) rightly points out, ‘whatever attracts people to Pitchfork, it isn’t the writing.‘ The site has yet to produce a name music critic. Instead the site’s most compelling rhetorical instruments remain its album review scores, cited to one decimal place (acting as a powerful promotional short–hand alongside its red Best New Music logo), and Pitchfork editorial’s ability to sift and lift specific artists from the broader music culture. In keeping with Schreiber’s stated desire to be a type of geographically boundless fanzine, Pitchfork, in its essence, provides a neat, accessible portal into localized music cultures that the average reader can’t possibly enter first–hand. Like a traditional music publication, Pitchfork collates and lists and reports on a variety of places that none of us, individually, can access.

Yet much of this remains at the level of brand maintenance. It is presentation and perception. Pitchfork appears to draw from (or position itself as the origin of) the same pool of material that churns over on social media, from the resource pool many of us build for ourselves online. In the doing, site editorial has become increasingly guarded and resolutely professional in how it manages itself as a critical and business mechanism. In 2014, the site’s continued upstart status speaks more to the various editorial and/or financial failings of competitors than it does Pitchfork’s daily content. This is a reputational asset Pitchfork keenly protects but it is also true that over the last decade, the site has just as keenly looked to leverage and expand its brand into products and services far outstripping independent music criticism and reportage.

Originally an indie–focused site, Pitchfork in recent years has diversified both its product offerings and its editorial coverage. The site’s reviewers now take a broader view of music. After the “poptimist” turn in music criticism last decade, the site moved with the times and featured more albums best described as mainstream pop. Reviews and news on hip hop, R&B and metal are likewise more frequent. In 2006, the site launched its own branded Pitchfork Festival, a serious undertaking that eroded much of the concrete distance the site maintained from the broader music industries. Subsidiary sites concerning underground music blogs, interior design and visual art and film, have since been started with limited success. Twenty years into the project, the site remains transfixed on the American, and to a lesser extent the U.K., music industries. As such, the albums reviewed and artists interviewed (and booked for Pitchfork Festival) remain heavily swayed towards the traditional power–centers of the music industries: New York, L.A. and London. Anecdotal reports from various sources both first–hand and public, position Pitchfork’s current editorial decision–making as heavily gate–kept by the publicity and marketing industry; former Pitchfork editor Chris Ott (2014) is venomously outspoken on this point. Any macro attempt at discursive analysis of the site’s content reveals the sheer repetition of its editorial [12]. For a repository of new and vanguard music, Pitchfork focuses its attention with all the zeal of former U.K. weeklies like NME or Melody Maker, or to make a more contemporary analogy, all the traffic optimizing savvy of a search engine entrepreneur.

In 2014, Pitchfork is located somewhere off to the side of traditional music media outlets. It cannot leverage the brand recognition of Rolling Stone nor gain access to the very top echelons of the American music industries or its stars. In addition to which, it is now institutionally fixed in a position well beyond the reach of vast swathes of musicians and labels documenting localized music scenes. More than ever before, it as reads a closed system, an imposed cultural hierarchy that maps out a middle ground between aspirant “up and comers” (almost always foregrounded by the publicity or independent label sector) and an established canon of commercial successes. Pitchfork may remain independently owned but is now heavily invested in the broader music industries of the West. It is not independent in focus or function but instead stands as a successful hybrid of criticism and industry.

This, of course, is not the desired outcome of the quasi–separatist ideologies surrounding hardcore punk upon which much of independent music and (its vibrant 1990s fanzine culture) was founded. Nor does this decade’s reiteration of Pitchfork bare much resemblance to the utopian promises of online music technologies outlined earlier in this paper. The site stands as an example of how the metrics of attention have tamed and quantified a previously messy and chaotic impulse collected from independent practice. Further to which, the site’s failure to produce a “name” critic in the vein of Cream Magazine’s Lester Bangs or Rolling Stone’s Hunter S. Thompson feels purposeful in the present culture, situated as we are within an online technological framework where personal branding is encouraged by a multitude of platforms. Writing criticism for Pitchfork, by comparison, is a corralling and anonymizing type of publication output. Publication on Pitchfork remains a high profile entry in a writer’s CV but seems to do little to elevate these writers beyond the site itself. In the doing, this has created a powerful authoritative new brand yet as traditional publishing outlets have altered their practice in lieu of Pitchfork’s success, the site has started to look less and less disruptive. Whatever disruptive potentialities were embodied in early incarnations of Pitchfork have now been subsumed or effectively mimicked by its competitors.

 

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All this has happened before. All this will happen again.

The narrative of ‘democratizing’ technology, disrupting an established or entrenched music industry leading to lawsuits and, ultimately, structural change played out almost verbatim in the first half of the twentieth century with the emergence of broadcast radio. Much like the online distribution of digital works, radio can be considered a disruptive technology whose widespread use “coincided with, and was often cited as a cause of a decline in the popularity of sheet music, musical instruments, motion pictures, and ... other live performances” [13]. In the 1920s, music rights–collection society ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), pursued newly constituted U.S. radio stations on the basis that “their use of licensed music without the necessary permission was illegal and would be challenged in court” [14]. ASCAP’s legal action foreshadowed a shakeup in the way that recorded music was promoted and distributed in the United States and, in particular, an opening of the popular music marketplace to new firms as well as “hillbilly” and “race” records. Hugunin argues that radio was a democratizing force that resulted in ASCAP “losing money and, perhaps more importantly, power and control in the popular music marketplace” [15].

Hugunin’s observations are instructive in that they equate the opening of the marketplace to competition and a broader diversity of consumer choice with a “democratizing” influence. Sherry Turkle (1984) observed a similar discourse around the introduction of the personal computer, noting that, “they came on the scene at a time of dashed hopes for making politics open and participatory. Personal computers were small, individually owned, and when linked through networks over telephone lines they could be used to bring people together” [16]. Théberge identifies further parallels between these early computer users and amateur radio operators and DIY synthesizer enthusiasts:

What is particularly striking in all of these examples is the predominantly male, hobbyist orientation of these activities; the fascination with technology itself; and, perhaps most important, the idealistic, democratic, and utopian rhetorics that are often mobilized in support of such activities. [17]

Théberge could be describing much of the literature surrounding the formation of Napster or Pitchfork’s readership. Napster’s moment as a file–sharing portal was startlingly brief but played perfectly into a cultural tendency that also sits at the heart of Pitchfork’s origin story: a mythology of a (white, middle class, outcast) “youth as inventor hero” and the “utopian promise” of technology along with “a dystopian case for adult supervision” [18]. As an aside, this same tendency can be seen in recent reportage on Darknets, Bitcoin and online marketplaces for illicit goods such as The Silk Road (for example Greenberg, 2013).

These examples demonstrate a persistent and pervasive mythology of technological change creating new forms of consumption; conceived by creators, consumers or through reportage, as in some way “democratizing”. Instead of providing access to, or participation in, a representative system of decision making or governance these types of technological change typically offer greater individual choice or forms of expression; “freedom”, particularly for “non–professionals,” to participate in previously closed marketplaces; and the promise or perception of a flattening of existing hierarchies. This mythology conforms to what Barbrook and Cameron (1996) described, and critiqued, as “The Californian Ideology”. In particular they highlight the influence of far–right economic liberalism in spite of this being, even in the late 1990s, “contradicted by the actual history of hypermedia.” Notably they cite the influence of the Progress and Freedom Foundation who famously claimed:

In cyberspace ... market after market is being transformed by technological progress from a “natural monopoly” to one in which competition is the rule. [19]

Since the life and death of Napster as a laissez–faire enterprise, numerous commentators have trumpeted a DIY “new music business paradigm [that] allows artists to take control of their careers” (Houghton, 2007). A clamor of future–minded artists and pundits such as Bob Lefsetz, Amanda Palmer, Gerd Leonhard and periodicals and blogs in the music and tech space (including Pitchfork.com, Techdirt.com, Wired.com, Hypebot.com) have spilled innumerable pixels articulating a model for commercially exploiting recorded music online without the major labels.

While these commentators point to success stories that demonstrate the potential for the online space to boost an artist’s fan base and earnings, it’s unclear whether these successes should be considered typical or replicable. Increasingly, there is a strong case to be made that the transformation of the market for recorded music has not resulted in meaningful benefits to most independent producers. Hesmondhalgh argues that for all the euphoric predictions “small and medium–sized companies have generally not been able to reap the rewards of the new opportunities for promotion and marketing afforded by the Internet and the World Wide Web” [20]. Rogers (2013) explains in more detail, that:

For independent record companies, access to this marketplace is still largely mediated through the major companies, with the distinction between indie and major becoming more blurred. Recent and emerging digital technologies and Internet spaces provide new opportunities for unsigned artists and wholly independent labels (i.e., those that have no connection to or relationship to the major labels) to generate a profile at retail level. However, this access is largely restricted to ‘peripheral’ markets as the resources and relationships vital to accessing mainstream or mass markets remains under the control of the main corporate actors. [21]

In his 2014 inaugural Keynes lecture, economist Paul Mason (2014) suggests Paul Romer correctly identified “that the natural state of an information economy was to create monopolies: [as] only monopoly could prevent the market forcing the price of information goods towards zero.” Rather than democratizing the marketplace, digital content necessitates monopoly business practices in order to generate a profit. For a while Apple achieved this with their 95 percent market share of online recording sales through the iTunes Music Store, enabling them to set terms on pricing and DRM for the online sale of recordings. Apple has also been criticized extensively for excluding material from the iOS App store on the basis of content that is religious or political (Peckham, 2013); violent or sexually explicit (Charlton, 2013); contains objectionable language (Ogg, 2009); and seemingly arbitrarily (Diaz, 2010). Disquiet has also been growing at Google’s effective monopoly in the online advertising space and the company’s complex relationship with the music marketplace. YouTube has recently threatened to block independent artists’ music videos from its service if the artists fail to sign non–negotiable licensing deals that appear to heavily favor the major labels (Christman, 2014).

Far from leveling the playing field, these disruptive outlets privilege careers from established channels at the expense of new and emerging artists. Wikström (2009) identifies the currency that established artists have as brands in this marketplace and suggests that this has lead to a reluctance to invest in new talent. As advertising revenue displaces sales revenue, the power rests with those able to consistently broker an engaged audience. Music, both recorded and live, ceases to function as a product or a service instead occupying the role of content that is exploited at minimal or no cost by third parties to monetize attention. Individual copyrights and rights holders are typically disempowered as they are unable to compete with or deliver the attention commanded by entrenched companies or monopoly retailers. ‘Niche’ artists that were supposed to benefit the most from the democratizing effect of online distribution, often appear among those who feel most disenfranchised. In a piece on label equity in Spotify, the Guardian’s Helienne Lindvall (2009) noted:

In Sweden, where Spotify has been running the longest, Magnus Uggla — well–established since the late 70s — has withdrawn his music from the service. On his blog he said that, after six months on the site he’d earned “what a mediocre busker could earn in a day”. Regarding his record label, Sony Music, he says “after suing the shit out of Pirate Bay, they’re acting just like them by not paying the artists”. When he found out that Sony had 5.8% equity in Spotify he wrote: “I would rather be raped by Pirate Bay than fucked up the ass by (Sony boss) Hasse Breitholtz and Sony Music and will remove all of my songs from Spotify pending an honest service.”

The hierarchies that Napster, Pitchfork and the digitization of recorded music, disrupted are still largely in place; if slightly reconfigured. Major firms and the monopolizing interests in online advertising, streaming and distribution of digital goods maintain “crucial control over the marketing and promotion that largely determine what music consumers get to hear and know about” [22]. Erstwhile proponents of the democratizing potential of online music have started to acknowledge these realities. Bob Lefsetz (2014), for example, conceded, “the Internet was supposed to wipe out major labels. But it’s only made them stronger.” Lefsetz positions this as a recent failing and argues that an open meritocracy existed in the music industries post–Napster until 2011 when the ‘Internet cacophony’ restored the major label hierarchy. Reflecting on the realities of the post–Napster marketplace, Burkart and McCourt (2006) observe that the technological utopia that appears to have held many writers in its thrall might more accurately be described as “an opaque, oppressive, and socially regressive set of institutions for controlling access to popular culture” [23] that have “inflicted economic, social, and cultural harm” [24]. Rather than evidencing a plurality of voices the recording industry, in the commercial space at least, has become increasingly homogenous.

 

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Conclusion

Napster and Pitchfork are two case studies of the promises online technologies have made to active music listeners and the communities that facilitate them, online and off. The Napster narrative is a short–lived one. It emerged, proved worrisome to industry and, after bankruptcy proceedings, disappeared into mythology as proof that “sharing” remains the enemy of industry. Pitchfork survived. Its legacy remains neatly within Paul Romer’s concept of the rival good; its financial success appears predicated on creating these goods with frequency and promoting a sense of critical authority (itself a type of rival good accompanying the way taste is easily related and shared online). Over time, the stance and presentation of these two companies appears deeply rhetorical. The founders of Napster and Pitchfork traded on the attention afforded them as embodiments of a persistent mythology of the democratizing nature of technological change. The changes they have wrought or accompanied appear increasingly slight, more about savvy businesses exploiting gaps in the market than the wholesale “disruption” of markets and the power exerted in controlling them.

The degree to which it is possible to resist or undermine the dystopia of online music depends on our ability to discern support for a plurality of voices within these from within routine and opportunistic exploitation of market disruption for personal and political gain. The lowered barriers to entry in the creation and distribution of digital media absolutely allows for greater participation in online markets for recorded music, irrespective of whether those markets are free and open. Many artists and independent labels have undoubtedly felt empowered and achieved success despite the market consolidation and contradictory narratives that followed in Napster’s wake. Pitchfork, for a time, proved a powerful ally to a select group of independent music labels. However, there are clear reasons to challenge the persistent naivety with which technological change has been conflated with democratic and utopian idealism. Especially where these engender expectations that are fundamentally flawed and damaging. The same disruption signaled by Napster and Pitchfork to their respective industries should be anticipated for any goods or services that can be digitized and/or distributed online. Similar narratives of disruption and democratization are playing out in online journalism and e–publishing more broadly, and clear monopoly tactics are on display in Amazon’s pricing disputes with Hachette publishing (McCarthy, 2014) and Warner Bros (Bensinger and Fritz, 2014). If this is an indication of what to expect in an online education market, for example, where MOOCs have been valorized as “a democratic way to raise collective education” (Hyman and Baptist, 2014); the implications are troubling. While much debate on Napster focused on youthful transgressions and the impact of technological change, a far more complex set of values were being contested. Pitchfork can be seen as one of many inheritors here, one of the few to flourish in the wake of this contestation. The resulting inequalities and cultural processes need to be understood as outworking of the economic (and cultural, and political) systems in which the underpinning technological change took place. What was lost, and won, in these contestations, and a fuller understanding of tone of what exists at present, may prove tremendously important as these same systems further propagate the online attention economy, proffering the commodification of our (online) selves. End of article

 

About the authors

Dr. Dave Carter is Lecturer in Music Technology at the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music. Dave’s commercial recorded output has been broadcast on ABC Classic FM, Radio National, Triple J, and community radio across Australia. He has managed creative projects for a range of clients including the U.N., World Bank and Unilever and has worked on community development projects in Australia and southeast Asia.
E–mail: dave [dot] carter [at] utas [dot] edu [dot] au

Dr. Ian Rogers is a lecturer in the Music Industry program at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. He gained his Ph.D. from the University of Queensland in 2012 where he was supervised by Graeme Turner for a thesis titled “Musicians and aspiration: Exploring the rock dream in independent music.” He is the author of numerous articles on musician ideologies, music policy and local music history and his latest publication appears in Sounds and the city, an edited collection for Palgrave Macmillan.
E–mail: ian [dot] rogers [at] rmit [dot] edu [dot] au

 

Notes

1. Burkart and McCourt, 2006, p. 11.

2. Spitz and Hunter, 2006, p. 175.

3. Burkart and McCourt, 2006, p. 3.

4. Kot, 2009, p. 34.

5. Lefsetz, 2007.

6. Théberge, 1997, p. 72.

7. Wikström, 2009, p.64.

8. Romer, 2002, p. 213.

9. Spitz and Hunter, 2006, p. 177.

10. Butler, 2006, p. 53.

11. According to site analytics site QuantCast, Pitchfork has averaged over 2,000,000 unique visitors per month since January 2010. A particularly favorable first quarter in 2014 has seen this sky–rocket to over 5,000,000 visitors per month.

12. For a fuller account, we cite Ian Rogers (2014) wherein the band Death Grips is promoted on the site no less than 50 times in the previous two years.

13. Hugunin, 1979, p. 8.

14. Hugunin, 1979, p. 9.

15. Ibid.

16. Turkle, 1984, p. 171.

17. Théberge, 1997, p. 152.

18. Spitz and Hunter, 2006, pp. 173–174.

19. Dyson, et al., 1994.

20. Hesmondhalgh, 2011, p. 69.

21. Rogers, 2013, p. 153.

22. Hesmondhalgh, 2011, p. 69.

23. Burkart and McCourt, 2006, p. 3.

24. Burkart and McCourt, 2006, p. 37.

 

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Editorial history

Received 9 September 2014; accepted 10 September 2014.


Copyright © 2014, First Monday.
Copyright © 2014, David Carter and Ian Rogers.

Fifteen years of ‘Utopia’: Napster and Pitchfork as technologies of democratization
by David Carter and Ian Rogers.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 10 - 6 October 2014
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5543/4122
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i10.5543





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