Music in the Age of Free Distribution
First Monday

Music in the Age of Free Distribution: MP3 and Society by Kostas Kasaras

This essay is an attempt to present and critically discuss the phenomenon of music piracy on the World Wide Web. The main arguments in this paper will try to approach the phenomenon from two directions. The first one attempts to present the MP3 phenomenon as a part of the challenges that the music industry had to face. It is argued that in the past several technological developments have already challenged the music industry's status quo in similar ways. The second direction, is attempting to situate the MP3 phenomenon in its general technological, economical and political framework. In other words, the MP3 phenomenon should be examined as a part of the cultural transformation that the Internet 'explosion' produces on a global scale.


The New Technology
The Uses of Technology: A Brief Genealogy of the Mechanically Reproduced Sound
Analysing the MP3 Phenomenon




"The cool thing about Napster is that it encourages enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do"
Thom Yorke (Radiohead), 10 September 2000.

The topic of this essay is the contemporary phenomenon of music piracy on Internet. The new computing technologies have provided to the Net users the opportunity to download to their personal computers and distribute to the Web, free musical pieces of art in digital format. This is a result of a file-compressing technology called MP3, which has made the transportation of music in the Net very easy.

This piratical distribution of digital music has produced a great number of arguments around issues related to how art should be distributed and consumed and the implications that a change can have to the music industry and the art creation process. In addition, the MP3 phenomenon is a part of the contemporary discussions about the ethnographies of the Net and in general about the impacts that the Internet experience has in modern societies.

The ways that this essay presents the topic is firstly by explaining what an MP3 file is and by presenting the story of the two most popular MP3 sites (Napster and and secondly by following two directions of arguments about the implications of the phenomenon. The first direction is related to a presentation of the historical development of the music industry as a result of several technological inventions (phonograph, radio, transistor, vinyl, cassette, and MTV). The main intention behind this presentation is to show the ways that these new technological developments have shocked the music industry's existing system of their time, and how they were incorporated by it. In that sense, one can understand that the MP3 piratical phenomenon is not the first challenge that the music industry has experienced; many previous technological developments have challenged its status quo before.

The second direction of arguments is mostly related to a critical presentation of the implications of MP3 for the modern musical industry and society in general. Therefore, this essay is an attempt to present the structure of the first MP3 communities (although we still do not know much about them), their musical consumption (as a social phenomenon), and the implications that these have to music industry. Moreover, this essay is attempting to present the impacts that the MP3 phenomenon has on artists and on the art creation process. Finally, the last chapter of this essay examines the political implications of this phenomenon, as a subversive political action.



The New Technology

What is MP3?

Before explaining what an MP3 is, a clarification of modern music technology is useful. Music CDs, tapes, and vinyl discs reproduce sound through a 'so called' analogue format. This means - simply - that various devices can play music by reading physical bumps or grooves of the surface of the media. In contrast, computers reproduce music by using a digital format. This is a technology that converts these bumps or grooves into number combinations, called algorithms, which the computer translates into sound waves (called WAV files). These algorithmic files have the disadvantage that they take a large amount of space, making storage and transfer difficult. The solution to these problems has come in the creation of MP3.

The acronym MP3 is derived from the group that discovered it. The Moving Picture Experts Group was based in the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in Germany and its purpose, which started in 1987, was to create a high quality, low memory music file [1]. They knew that the human ear cannot hear all the frequencies that a WAV file has, so they decided to eliminate all those sound frequencies that a human ear fails to pick up, thus reducing file size. A WAV can be compressed to 1/22nd the size of the original by using MP3; as a consequence it can be transferable and easier to store. Does this reduction in size affect the quality of a MP3 sound file?

A MP3 file is a satisfactory reproduction of a WAV file as long as it is not reduced to its minimum of 1/22nd its original size. In this case it loses a noticeable amount of sound quality. By reducing the file only to one-tenth of its original size, the resultant sound quality appears to be unaffected. Consequently, an MP3 file is what researchers were looking for, since it requires less storage and memory, is an easy transferable file and has the sound quality of a full WAV file. In other words, as Jon Cooper and Daniel M. Harrison note,

"a telephone modem (56K) can transfer one 4,8-minute song in about 11 minutes, a cable modem can transfer one in 48 seconds, and faster links make transfer time almost a non issue entirely ... [while] with the rise of commodity hard drives, storing huge amounts of MP3 files is extremely efficient and affordable" [2].

In addition, the most important advantage is that the change from a WAV to MP3 is completely inexpensive.

Internet users adopted this new technology and started using MP3 for their favourite music files. Thousands of personal MP3 Web pages have been developed during the last three years and the amounts of Web searches for "MP3" have exploded into unbelievable numbers.

"One company that keeps track of cyber-traffic ( reports that MP3 has just surpassed the word 'sex' as the most popular search category on the Internet" [3].

Anyone, anywhere in the world with access to the Internet can log on the World Wide Web, visit respective Web sites and download for free into their personal computer music they like. Moreover, with the appropriate devices - CD recorders or MP3 players - they can transform these digital files to 'real' analogue ones.

One could argue that apart from changes in music distribution, MP3 has also produced a change in the ways that modern fans of music perceive a musical piece of art. As noted earlier, the digital reproduction of music transforms analogue formats to algorithms that are translated to sound. In other words, physical objects (CDs, tapes and vinyl) are replaced by computer bits that are stored in the storage devices of music fans, who seem to experience a different 'first approach' to musical expression. The lack of physical contact with an 'original' copy creates new ways of understanding music and new types of relationships between the consumer and the product. Similar to the change that music fans experienced when compact discs replaced vinyl [4], MP3 has changed concepts of ownership and even the idea of the musical piece of art as a whole. Consumers once upon a time had a sensation of "physically" owning music after every purchase, owning a container in which they they valued features of the physical container like an album cover and its artwork. These experiences are changing with MP3, and are characterised possibly by a more direct relationship with the sound experience than ever before. One could claim that the notion of originality has been replaced by the need for affluence with digital music.

Consequently, one could argue that this new technology, and generally the facilities that computers provide, produce several new conditions for the 'music world' related to distribution, consumption, copyright and art creation. But the new computing achievements - which some call a 'digital revolution' - are not only affecting the 'music world' but also many other part of modern society and everyday life. Perhaps we should regard the MP3 phenomenon as just one example of this 'digital revolution', which has made a strong impact on just one part of modern society - the 'music world'.

Taking everything into account, one could claim that MP3 technology shocked the traditional 'music world'. This aspect of the 'digital revolution' was unanticipated by the music industry. Changes in music consuming behaviour were not the result of the appearance of personal sites and the exchange of MP3 files as attachments in e-mail. Everything changed after the development of MP3 sites based in the idea of 'file sharing', like Napster and

The Story of Napster and

In 1999, Shawn Fanning, a student at Northeastern University, created a MP3 Web site that was unlike all other existing sites at the time. It did not provide access to music files to download, but instead was a file sharing system. His server used a software program, called Napster [5], which allowed visitors to access music by using a direct file transfer. Any visitor could obtain the Napster software by visiting his site, and then see what kinds of music was available by typing in a song title or thename of an artist. The server would then link one Napster user to another Napster user who actually has a specific song on their computer.

For the traditional music industry, Napster made music piracy on the Web a mass phenomenon, for in just a few months Napster acquired an astonishing number of users.

"Napster has unleashed the music nerd in a supposed 65 million users. With an incredible 300,000 new users signing on everyday, Napster became the biggest single user-community the Internet has ever seen in its sort and surprising life" [6].

Music fans became excited by this new way of music distribution, because most popular music was readily available and "using Napster was easier than going to record store, and easier than ordering records on-line" [7].

Another popular MP3 site, with a different function than Napster, is Created by 31-year-old Michael Robertson, it "works for a higher purpose [...] We are providing artists with an option besides the traditional industry route-an avenue in which they have control of their destiny and keep ownership of their work" [8]. In when artists sign up, they agree to give a free download of their work for visitors to the site. When Web visitors decide to purchase an entire CD, delivers it to their homes. "The artist sets the price of the CD, gets 50% of the retail price on every sale, and keeps full control of the master recording. Thanks to the free songs, Robertson has built one of the most popular sites on the Web, with 250,000 visitors a day" [9].

Apart from its alternative solution for music distribution to artists and music fans, also had another function for successful artists. If visitors could prove that they own the album of a specific artist, by putting a specific compact disc in their CD-ROM drive, they could download any song they liked from this album. This might sounds pointless, but anyone could borrow the relative album and then download it for free; and many took advantage of this opportunity. This was one of the best ways for Michael Robertson to advertise his site's artists, since he promoted them by taking advantage of the fame of other artists. Therefore, if any visitor wanted to download songs from say the new Pink Floyd album, they could also download for free the samplers of artists that belonged to

The incredible number of Napster and users and the creation of many similar sites resulted in an immediate reaction by the music industry. Their fear that customers would stop purchasing compact discs, because their content was free on the Web, united the five major companies in the music business - Sony, Universal, EMI, Warner, and BMG - under the same goal: to legally fight against piratical musical distribution and especially against Napster and Toward this legal action many popular artists were supportive - like Metallica or Elton John and Madonna - while many others were against the legal fight - for example, Radiohead, Public Enemy, U2, Prince and Neil Young. Metallica in fact started legal proceedings while in contrast Radiohead, Public Enemy and Prince were among the first popular artists that elected to distribute their new albums on the Web.

The legal action against Napster and, started at the end of 1999 by Metallica and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Nearly two years later, the music industry and music fans all around the globe are still waiting for the end of the story. Reactions to the legal battles during this period were many and varied. Some demonstrated their disapproval towards restrictions on Napster by hacking into several American governmental Web pages [10] or by sending thousands of e-mails to several American Senators. Also, many Web sites - like or - were created by MP3 fans to ridicule those artists that fought Napster and Moreover, the MP3 'hysteria' also led to political reactions after the German government discovered some Nazi tracks that were exchanged on the Web [11]. Another example is the sudden police invasion into the homes of MP3 users in Belgium, [12]. Significantly, the 'Napster and case' was one of the questions addressed to the two American presidential candidates, Al Gore and George Bush, during their pre-electoral political debates [13]. "Orrin Hatch, the usually staid, conservative senator from the Mormon homeland of Utah, suddenly got Napster fever and began to make appearances with the golden boy (Shawn Fanning)" [14] certainly indicates the popularity of the MP3 phenomenon. Much of the academic world and famous institutions - like MIT, Stanford and the University of South California - placed themselves against restrictions by allowing their students to download and exchange MP3 filess until (at least) the end of legal action.

In spite of the legal actions, the music industry is facing a new reality that is difficult to control, challenging many of the principles of the existing system. The 'MP3 storm' has already produced a major crisis related to producing, reproducing and distributing music. As Clay Shirky noted:

"The economics of the Internet are pressing with irresistible force not just against business models that treat music as intellectual property but against the legal structure of intellectual property itself. The big question is not whether Napster will win or lose on appeal. It is whether the current legal structure regarding copyright will hold" [15].

It is obvious that the MP3 reality is testing the entire system, including artists, the music industry, consumers and their relations. But - as history has shown - this is not the first time that technology is changing or threatening these relationships. We will now try to make a brief genealogy of the ways in which new technologies 'shocked' traditional relationships, confronting existing systems and influencing notions of intellectual property.



The Uses of Technology: A Brief Genealogy of the Mechanically Reproduced Sound

The Beginning of a New Industry

The evolution of the music industry has been deeply influenced by the developments in technology. One could argue that technology has been many times a challenge for existing modes of cultural production, its economic relationships, and the law. New technologies often find existing relationships unprepared for changes, so technology becomes the vehicle for transformation and further development of existing relations. Uusually the first reaction is an attempt to incorporate new developments into an existing framework and then to use them for profitable purposes. For example, look at the impact of Johann Gutenberg's invention in the 15th century.

Gutenberg's movable type created in one sense the foundation for the modern music industry. As Russell Sanjek argues, the "[c]ontrol of the duplicating process had moved from the hands of church into those of the entrepreneur. Literature was becoming secularised to meet the demands of its new audience, and music too, would soon be laicised as its principal patron, the church was replaced by the public consumer" [16]. The development of typography altered social relations of the time, and led to new ways of distributing knowledge and arts. As Garofalo writes:

"In the mercantile economy, the dependency of feudal relations and the elitism of the patronage system were gradually replaced by the relative democracy of the marketplace ... Slowly a pan-European body of literary and musical works appeared. As the financial interests of merchant bookseller-publishers expanded, they began to join forces to lobby for legal protection" [17].

Therefore, the development of the market economy created new economic interests and new ethics about the value of a work of art and the protection of intellectual property.

Britain created one of earliest copyright laws in 1710, the Statute of Anne, which became the basis of every intellectual law that followed in England and in international level. Since this beginning, legal issues have addressed the division of profit between artist and distributor. As Garofalo argues, despite that "the law included an author's copyright and protections for consumers (by limiting the term of copyright and creating a 'public domain'), it clearly favoured the stationer's guild ... In this reciprocal arrangement, booksellers fared considerably better than authors or composers" [18]. These fundamental policies continue even today, protecting the artist by ensuring at least a minimum payment for his work.

Mechanical reproductions of art and information challenged existing systems and their economic interests. After Gutenberg, a number of inventions followed, each in their own 'shocking' traditions of producing and distributing knowledge and art. With the first International agreement on copyright in 1886 (known as the Berne Convention), existing system for the organization and distribution of information organised the means to protect their interests at an international level. Therefore, every subsequent 'invention' faced a well organised system that fought changes in the status quo, often by amendments to the Berne Convention or by legal actions at various levels in different states.

One indeed could argue that the technological achievements of the last 100 years ultimately did little to challenge existing systems, but instead only reinforced them. The invention of sound recordings, for example the phonograph, created the music industry, as we know it. The response of the music industry over time to new technologies supports the notion that technologies reinforce, rather than radically alter, existing systems of information creation and distribution.

The Gramophone and the First Steps of the Music Industry

Thomas Edison's phonograph - or 'talking machine' - was simply a new device for the office that could provide assistance with stenography, teaching elocution, and other mundane chores. Edison used musicians and singers in public demonstrations, but never envisioned an industry based solely on music. He always claimed that his phonograph was just "a mere toy, which had no commercial value" [19].

It was the gramophone, not the phonograph, that brought the music industry into existence. Invented by Emile Berliner, he immediately realised the possibilities for a new niche. "At its first demonstration in 1888, Berliner prophesied the ability to make an unlimited number of copies from a single master, the development of a mass-scale home-entertainment market for recorded music, and a system of royalty payments to artists derived from the sale of disks" [20]. Berliner's company - the Talking Machine Company - in 1901 became a leading force in the music business in the United States and a threat to the traditional entertainment business. As Martin explains, "the threat that this [recording industry] posed was soon apparent to piano-makers and retailers, music teachers, sheet music publishers, music hall and vaudeville artists, proprietors and so on" [21].

Berliner's business plan was based on growth in two areas. First, on the practical side, the basic technology had to evolve to be easy to use and inexpensive to the consumer and profitable to the Company. Second, new musicians and music had to be discovered, and demand for that music had to be generated to sell gramophones and related technologies. Emile Berliner managed to succeed in both. He created the 78 RPM discs that were the industry standard until 1948 (the 33-1/3 RPM disc appeared in 1948, and the 45 RPM disc was first available in 1949). Berliner hired Fred Gaisberg to find new talent and make them more widely known through the recording medium [22]. Consequently, Berliner's plans paid off, and soon the music industry expanded, since many others followed his strategy. From this point and afterwards, the recording industry has continued 'using' recording directors and talent scouts (like Berliner did when he hired Fred Gaisberg) to promote its business and has also started producing both the music hardware (in this case the phonograph) and the software (the gramophone records). Until the new directions that Berliner created, the record-making activities were just an aspect of their marketing of record players and not a separate commodity.

It is interesting to note that since its very beginning the main source of income for the recording industry was derived from popular music rather than classical music. As Garofalo claims, "the record companies were slow to learn the cultural lesson that while the European classics brought prestige to their labels, the steady income - indeed, the future of the recording industry - was tied more to popular appetites" [23].

One could argue that, like every other successful business, the music industry had to follow and at the same time reinforce the public's tastes. However, a new (for the time) technological development - radio - would prevent this market from expanding and it would force the recording industry into its first decline. In the same way that recording techniques threatened the entertainment business of the nineteenth century, they were themselves challenged by the development of radio and its consequences.

The 'Magic' of Radio

The early years

The historical development of radio is of great importance in modern history. Beginning in the last decade of the nineteenth century, as "one of those developments that clearly resulted from an international process of shared knowledge" [24], radio became one of the most important ways for national and international information and communication. Radio's connection to politics and governmental decisions was very strong - even in the U.S. (where most of radio stations were private) and in Britain (the BBC was in principle independent [25]. Radio was very important politically from its very beginning, and until the growth of television as a popular medium, it had probably the most dominant position in modern society.

Although the first years after the First World War were characterised by a steady growth of the music industry, the late years of the 1920s and the early 1930s brought a decline. The main reasons were the economic crash of 1929 and the development of radio. On the one hand, the economic crisis had a deep impact on consumer's attitudes, especially a new product. Radio made music reproduction available in homes at a much lower cost so as a consequence radios replaced record players. People could listen to music in their private spaces without having to purchase it. At this point the consuming custom of 'possessing music' - owning a recording - was 'immature' so the market declined. Radio was also not yet tied to the kinds of products that the music industry was marketing. As Simon Frith argues:

"By 1926 RCA was networking shows via its National Broadcasting Company. There was, too, an early broadcasting emphasis on 'potted palm music' (to attract relatively affluent and respectable listeners) which meant that while radio did 'kill' record sales it also left pockets of taste unsatisfied. Early radio stations were not interested in black audiences, for example, and so the market for jazz and blues records became, relatively, much more significant" [26].

However, new marketing efforts were responsible for change in the music industry in the late 1930s. The installation of jukeboxes in thousands of bars and saloons became one of the best ways for the industry to promote and advertise its commodities and mold tastes. The second practice was related to what was called the 'star system'. As Simon Frith writes, "companies became less concerned to exploit big stage names [film stars], and more interested in building stars from scratch, as recording stars. They became less concerned to service an existing public taste than to create new tastes, to manipulate demand" [27]. In addition, radio and the industry tried to coordinate their efforts, with radio continuously promoting music 'stars' and their albums [28].

Changes in the copyright laws

At the same time, copyright changed to prevent illegal public performances. The impressive popularity of radio and jukeboxes became another profitable source of income for the music industry, thanks to royalties for every public performance of music. Garofalo notes that:

"While both the USA and British revisions added mechanically rights to already existing performing rights, enabling publishers to extend their reach to the new medium, the British law also included language that was later used to argue for an additional right, referred to somewhat confusingly as 'performance right'…The performance right allows the record company to recover a royalty when the record is used for a public performance, as in a juke-box or the radio" [29].

The music industry grew and became more profitable than ever as radio was becoming increasingly popular. Several new radio shows were very important commercially like Your Hit Parade on NBC, which tapped into audience responses for programming decisions. This system was very crucial for marketing decisions in the music industry.

This 'well-balanced' system experienced a 'shock' with new technological developments - long-play records (33 and 45 RPM), television, transistor radios, and tape - that in turn promoted new cultural realities, rock and roll.

Music industry and radio: the long-play records (33-rpm and 45-rpm) and the transistor

Two of the most important inventions in the music industry were the transistor and the 'long-playing' 33 and 45 RPM (LP) records. Both were developed in 1948, and changed the musical experience of their time completely.

The transistor was introduced by U.S.-based Bell Telephone. It was a 'revolutionary' machine in its time, because it could reproduce an improved quality of sound compared to older, tube-based radios and it was much smaller, required less power, and was more durable. Moreover, its cheap price made it extremely popular and as a consequence promoted music in astonishing ways [30]. Consequently, it was a matter of time before the old technology was replaced by mechanically reproduced music - because of the invention of the transistor - to create new realities for the music industry.

The invention of the gramophone made it possible for consumers to own recordings but they were still expensive and fragile. Early tape recordings were not easily marketable because they were also very expensive. So, when a team of scientists at CBS labs invented 'high fidelity' or 'long-playing' 33 and 45 RPM (LP) records, it was an incredible breakthrough, because of their lower cost, great durability, and improved sound quality [31].

The combination of the transistor and the long-playing records was the greatest achievement in the history of the musical industry, because music as a commodity could easily enter anyone's home. Thse new developments were met with great enthusiasm and the music industry experienced unprecedented expansion. In addition, musicians were profiting from these changes, since their music was reaching ever growing audiences. The music industry was safe from any type of piracy, since there was no other way to reproduce music, except via radio [32]. But challenges were on the horizon for this profitable situation.

The Music industry in danger: cassettes, tapes and MTV

The introduction of cassette-tape brought many new consumers to the music industry. It was an invention that was aimed at bringing music into one of the places that consumers spent many hours - the car [33]. But the consumer was not just seeking music for private consumption; comsumers were also looking for the least expensive way to acquire a product.

As Garofalo argues, the cassette technology may have enabled the transnational music industry to penetrate remote corners of the globe, but it was also responsible for the industry's two main financial headaches of the 1980's - piracy and home-taping [34]. Tape technology is portable and recordable, and is one of the easiest ways to duplicate, produce and distribute music. This technology emerged as a major threat to the music industry [35]. The industry responded by finding a way to profit from this technological development [36].

As Clay Shirky argues in the review of Sonic Boom: MP3, Napster and the New Pioneers of Music, the fight over Napster is not just about revenues and profits. It is also about control and the resistance of some labels resistance to outsiders [37]. The development of music videos and the creation of MTV in the 1980s cemented this attitude by the major labels. MTV provided music with direct influence of the top recording companies and was extremely popular and profitable [38]. In addition, "MTV's dominance forced the music companies to shoulder the expense of video production and then pay MTV to air the videos" [39]. The music industry was determined to never let anything like that ever happen again to their business.



Analysing the MP3 Phenomenon

An Internet experience

The MP3 phenomenon - as a crucial contemporary issue for the music industry - is an example of the effect of the World Wide Web on the structure of global society. To understand and analyse the challenges of MP3, it is really important to 'place' this reality in its technological and social framework. As a beginning it is important to place MP3 in the context of the Internet phenomenon, its political consequences and its capabilities as medium.

The World Wide Web, was developed and achieved its popularity in the last decade of the twentieth century in a specific ideologically structured historical moment. As Jon Stratton notes, the World Wide Web is an ideologically constructed 'tool' for modern economies and politics, born from an idea that the Internet provides fast - almost immediate - exchange of goods - capital, information, products - with a minimum of barriers. Therefore, new media are more related to the circulation of goods as well as information:

"The reification of money, like that of information, leads us back to the reconstitution of communication media as transport systems. These new commodities are being transported through a hyperspace in which distance does not exist, and place and extension are replaced by pure movement" [40].

This new direction of modern capitalism was certainly anticipated. David Harvey, for example, imagined the qualitative transformation of modern capitalism thanks in part to global communicational systems and global markets [41]. So we can view the Internet as a modern sophisticated system - created in a strong ideological framework - that transcends national borders and accelerates cultural and economical globalisation [42].

The global response to the Internet has been remarkable. What has made this technological transformation so different from all previous technological "revolutions" is the Internet's fundamental provision of interactivity [43]. This interactivity allows for the free expression of ideas and opinions which at times are in conflict with more traditional views [44].

Hence the Internet supports open access and free communication but as a result there may be conflicts with the social and moral beliefs of some of its users. For example:

"As the text currently stands, it is impossible that a school student in one country downloading music files from a server located in a second country could be extradited - at the request of a third country - and thrown into jail. A French citizen resident in the United Kingdom has already spent several months in prison for having commercially hosted, on a server run by an American company, pornographic images that were legal in both France and the USA but illegal in Britain" [45].

To put it another way, if copyright laws are ignored in one place in the globe by freely distributing MP3 music in a state where laws regarding piracy are not well formed or not strictly enforced, it is difficult for parties in other states to stop this sort of distribution. In addition, the large volume of traffic on the Internet makes it exceedlingly difficult to track messages and files over time and space.

Given that there are thousands of MP3 sites around the world, with a vast array of musical resources, visited by millions, there is a new social reality of individuals organising themselves - and their musical passions - by developing relationships in different MP3 communities.

MP3 communities

These MP3 communities are virtual communities but what is exactly a 'virtual community'? Derek Foster explains:

"The Internet, for our purposes, provides a technological infrastructure for computer-mediated communication (CMC) across both time and space. The conceptual space in which this communication occurs is referred to as cyberspace, an environment in which face-to-face communication is impossible. A form of virtual co-presence, however, is established as a result of individuals' electronic interactions not being restricted by traditional boundaries of time and space: this is the basis of what is commonly referred to as 'virtual community'" [46].

This social interaction is personal yet physically distant [47]. Traditional sources of identity - like those of the 'neighbourhood', local communities, and the nation-state - are transformed into new intermediated social groups [48]. MP3 communities are like other virtual communities, with a focus on music. Millions of sites are dedicated to specific artists or music styles, with fans from every part of the globe. The Internet provides a vehicle for music lovers with the same cultural capital to 'meet' each other, organise themselves into specific communities and exchange their favourite songs [49].

These communities use several new technologies to communicate and have their own language and terminology (in English). This language is evident in chat rooms:

"Serves as the focal point for the audio piracy subculture. It is the electronic common ground to which all pirates return, and in which primary contacts are made and relationships formed. Each user selects a nickname (or 'nick') such as '_sub-bass', 'niceGuy' or 'BiGFiSH' to signify themselves. By selecting and joining a 'channel' from a larger set of alternative channels with varying access rituals, audio pirates come to be categorised by musical genre, type of computer connection, sort of pirate group and other social attributes" [50].

Within these communities, status is affected by a variety of factors, such as connectivity, size and relevance of personal archives of music, behaviour, and tenure. But the most important characteristic of these communities is their attitude towards copyright. For many, copyright is simply irrelevant:

"Copyright law does not interest me. It does not pertain to my existence in any way, because it never could affect me. I buy the software I use for business and steal the software I use for pleasure. I buy CDs that I want to listen to, but I download MP3 files of music that I do not think is worth buying or that I can not find in reasonable price. It is not like I can get caught, so why not? [51].

These communities are new social-virtual phenomena. Even though they have only existed for a short period of time, further analysis would prove fruitful.

Has the music industry really lost out?

The music industry today is an 'oligarchical' organised business [52] with over 70 percent of the global market controlled by five major corporations. The possibilities for newcomers in the business are few. MP3 was so undesirable because it represented an application of technology unanticipated by the industry. Given the industry's history of taking advantage of new technologies, how will it use the Internet?

The future of the business is closely related to computer technology and the World Wide Web. The Internet provides opportunities to expand markets, transport goods more easily and hence increase sales, and consequently provide for more profitable results. New computing developments and environments will make the consumption of music easier than ever while at the same providing products of a much higher quality:

"Systems are being put in place in stores to allow music (be it entire albums or individuals songs) to be downloaded and burned to CD, DVD or minidisk. Sony, for instance, is making nearly 4,000 titles from its back catalogue available in this fashion, including many out-of-print titles ... Sony's agreement with Digital-On-Demand provides a means by which entire albums or individual songs can be downloaded and burned onto a 'custom' CD for the consumer in a retail store ... We may witness a change in development of albums, as a result, and potentially a resurgence in the notion of a 'single', insofar as consumers may choose to purchase individual songs on a custom 'mix' CD of their own making" [53].

Certainly MP3 and especially Napster shocked the music industry by producing new ways of distributing and consuming music. But this shock provided the industry with a new direction and new purpose, to make new products available in ways that there undreamed of a decade ago. EMI executive Ted Cohen recognized this:

"Napster is a pretty cool thing ... I think it is one of the coolest things to come around. I also thought the moment I show it 'My God! This could destroy the whole business' ... How do you take something like this and turn it into something that the industry really could use?" [54].

Napster forced the music industry to rethink its marketing policies - improving its views of consumers, their consumption patterns and their use of free time:

"Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organising, and labelling consumers ... The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification ... Consumers appear as statistics on research organisation charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas; the technique is that used for any type of propaganda" [55].

The use of a Napster-like program could potentially provide this sort of information in great detail. Beyond marketing and data collection, one could argue that the greatest contribution of Napster was as a new form of advertising for the music industry. Napster 'functioned' in many cases as the first, easily accessible album sampler for the consumer. In terms of political economy, Napster became a way of increasing overall demand for music [56]. In turn, increasing demand usually lowers prices when the producer has the capability to do so. In this case, the music industry can take advantage of technologies to lower the cost per unit impressively [57].

Napster induced major changes in the musical industry, such as the invention of sites like and It had little negative effect on record sales [58]. Napster was not directly connected to a loss of profits; instead it was an 'ethical' issue for the music industry. Could music really be free?

Consuming digital music

The astonishing popularity of a number of MP3 sites indicates that popular music has experienced a fascinating change in demand and consumption. What has changed? Technology? Economics? or something else?

If we agree that advertising creates new needs, we can view MP3 as a special kind of advertising on a global scale for the music industry. It created many new consumers and convinced existing ones to purchased music in traditional formats. MP3 consumers download music with an educational purpose, to learn about recent developments in music, in order to evaluate products and make appropriate consuming decisions. eventually buy the original albums. As Wilfred Dolfsma argued "as long as traditional record companies are able to supply physical goods with authentic appeal, sales will not dwindle because digital music will not completely substitute traditional forms" [59]. The fetish character of the original continues to exist for consumers; digital copies are not immediate replacements for it.

We also need to consider the new kinds of interpersonal roles that are evolving on the Internet. Virtual interaction provides opportunities for many to re-assert their entity into a space with different rules than the 'real world'. The anonymity of this interactivity provides weapons for one to masquerade, to ridicule, or to develop subversive behaviour. Some become music pirates just to do something illegal, something different. So we could argue that new forms of consumption have been created that have different characteristics; they are based on interaction and this means that they are dialectical, non-passive, and complex. Yet, little objective information is available about these new forms of consumption.


Technological developments have radically changed the entire process of creating music. Artists today can record their music in high quality digital audio, press their CDs and print colour inserts, all inside their own home. They can also work with other musicians from around the globe just by using the Web [60].

Probably the most important effect of new technologies has been, and will continue to be, in music distribution. Artists are increasingly taking control of the distribution of their own music, rather than turn over their music and rights to the industry The artist now has the opportunity to account for profits without 'middleman' costs. Most importantly, the artist is free of restrictions that the music industry often set, and consequently become more creative. It is - in other words - what Dave Steward of the band 'Eurythmics' claimed, "[Napster] makes artists ask why they are not in control of what they are doing. Artists of any worth of strength will rise up and take control of the situation".

New technologies provide the 'weapons' for artists to fight and regain creative control over the content. This freedom also allows artists to control their own intellectual properties rather than surrender them for marketing and distribution costs. The Internet provides a vast platform for an artist to distribute and develop direct relations with audiences, avoiding, abhorrent record deals and policies of the industry.

However there are disadvantages. The same technology that makes it possible for an artist to reach a global audience can be used to create illegal copies freely distributed. The industry also has the funds to support extended tours, and few artists are financially able to take these sorts of risks.

Music piracy as a political behaviour

As mentioned earlier, the World Wide Web is a product of a specific historical and ideological period, and is thought to be a very useful 'tool' for economic expansion and capital transportation. Consequently, according to the traditional liberal philosophy, any type of intervention - governmental or private - in a free economy, is undesirable. The market should be free of interventions, as should the free market tools, such as today's Internet. However, in the past there has been a need for control under specific circumstances, such as period after the great crash of 1929. These changes in economical policies offer opportunities for different levels of intervention.

With the World Wide Web, there are two main arguments for changing the existing juridical framework towards more intervening policies. The first arguments is based on the moral principles of modern societies, attempting to control, for example, pornography on the Internet. In the second category we find copyright and intellectual property issues as well as forms of political behaviour.

Hence one could argue that digital music piracy is a political action. Despite the personal motives of those that create file-sharing Web sites or of those that consume free music, the fact that their actions offend the oligarchical music industry makes their behaviour political. Their actions are political - in terms of ideology - because they subvert the existing economic structure of profit with new ways of distributing a commodity, based usually on the principle of an ideal non-profitable equality.

Artists using this technology are also making a political statement. It is a de facto political action because it offends the organisation of the musical industry, and emancipates artists to develop their music without constraints. Artists in turn are free to follow their own distribution philosophies, to develop their own political and economic attitudes towards their audiences.

Hence digitally distributed music - regardless of its subject - is a priori political. Music in the age of the digital distribution cannot be autonomous, without political implications, as l'art pour l'art.

Walter Benjamin argues that mechanically reproduced art destroys the sense of authenticity, and dissolves the rituality that has been historically attached to traditional arts:

"Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual - first the magical, then the religious kind…but the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic reproduction, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice - politics" [61].

The mechanical reproduction of art in modern societies produces the desire to bring things closer spatially and humanly. So human-sensory perception is changing and so is the social function of art. People have learnt to search for the copy, to be satisfied with the copy, and moreover to be possessive of the copy - 'realities' that could never happen without the technologies of mechanical reproduction.

It should be emphasised that this situation results in a qualitative transformation of works of art. The emphasis on the exhibition value of a work of art concludes in changing the very meaning of art. The mechanical reproduction produces the semblance of an autonomic art and its theories - "l'art pour l'art" - disappears forever. The politicisation of art as a result of mechanically reproduced art forms (to which both audience and artists have been familiarised), has radically changed its meaning and has overpowered - de facto - ideas that might claim its autonomy. The autonomy of arts is not the issue anymore. The issue is use and use must be political. Therefore, for Benjamin, modern art is politics and the new (in his age) arts of film technology and photography are political by nature.

If we apply Benjamin's arguments to digital music, we could argue that the new digital age is changing the behaviour and the choices of both audiences and artists into political practices and (intervening) actions towards the structure of the music industry. In addition, despite the fact that the industry is still very profitable and gradually will incorporate technological breakthroughs into its practices, change has occurred. Consumers and artists are far more interactive and independent in the history of recorded music.

These realities will generate new ways of viewing art. The conversion of physical bumps or grooves on a medium into algorithms, which the computer translates into sound waves (WAV files), has created new ways of understanding music. Now there is a lack of physical contact because music exists solely as bytes. This could result in a less fetishised 'relationship' with the digital copy, which is immaterial and insubstantial.

Artists could also become victims of the practices of their fans. Apart from the economical consequences, the fact that the consumption of digital music has become extremely easy and fast can also affect the educational, political and artistic role of music. In other words, it is possible that many will continue downloading music in an obsessive manner, without identifying with it or experiencing a passionate attachment. An audience that is only consuming can create an artistic and political disaster for an artist.

Changes introduced by new technologies have only begun to have an effect on the uses of music on a global scale. With rapid advances in technology and with the growing technological skills of consumers, artists and the industry, it is perhaps too early to draw any conclusions about long-term effects on music and its use.




The general aim of this essay was to approach and critically assess the consumption of digital music on the World Wide Web and examine its social consequences. This phenomenon needs to be analysed as a part of a larger historical, political and economical framework. Therefore, this phenomenon can only be seen as just one side of the digitisation of culture as a whole, and the reality of the newly born ethnographies of the Internet. Moreover, the impacts of new multimedia have to be analysed as parts of the economical and political organisation of modern societies. Consequently, phenomena like digital piracy - that belong to the larger context of 'e-criminality' - cannot be analysed without defining the word 'criminality' in its social context. In societies like ours the idea of property is thought as an unalienated human right that has to be protected; any action against it is illegal. Similarly, every piratical behaviour towards intellectual property is thought to be criminal action. Hence digital piracy - as well as other Web phenomena - cannot be analysed without presenting the philosophical and ideological framework in which they were created.

This essay analysed the MP3 phenomenon by examining how technological developments in the past challenged and produced changes in the musical industry. This contect helps us understand how the industry is approaching new technologies, adapting them for their own purposes. MP3 is probably just the beginning of technological changes that will impact society. A close analysis of this phenomenon might provide lessons on the impact of future technologies on society. End of article


About the Author

Kostas Kassaras studied Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Athens (Greece), and recently graduated from the MA course on the "Sociology of Contemporary Culture" at the University of York. He is interested in theories of everyday life and the ways in which popular culture is related to subversive political behaviors.



1. The name MP3 is a combination of their initials 'MP' and number 3. The number 3 refers to the three layers in the audio; see Stevens, 2001, p. 88.

2. Cooper and Harrison, 2001, p. 73.

3. Fantel, 2000, p. 26.

4. Many consumers thought that compact discs were inferior to vinyl in terms of artwork. Some preferred the larger, 'paper-based' versions of art for vinyl containers, than the small - and 'cold' - plastic cases of compact discs.

5. The site took its name by Shawn Fanning's high school nickname, 'Napster'.

6. Wakelin, 2001, p. 84.

7. Alderman, 2001, p. 53.

8. Michael Robertson quoted in Mardesich, 1999, p. 97.

9. Mardesich, 1999, p. 98.

10. Such as by 17-year-old Robert Little during September 2000.

11. See, December 2000.

12. See, February 2001.

13. See, October 2000.

14. Alderman, 2001, p. 55.

15. Shirky, 2001, p. 147.

16. Sanjek, 1988, volume 1, p. 37.

17. Garofalo, 1999, p. 320.

18. Ibid.

19. Sanjek, 1988, volume 2, p. 365.

20. Schicke, 1974, p. 41.

21. Martin, 1995, p. 256.

22. Garofalo, 1999, p. 325.

23. Garofalo, 1999, p. 327.

24. Op. cit., p. 329.

25. "still, BBC radio has hardly been free from government intervention in the censorship of popular music", Garofalo, 1999, p. 330.

26. Frith, 1988, p. 17.

27. Op. cit.

28. "By the end of 1930s [radio] was the most important musical medium: radio gave record companies a means of promoting their stars, while the record companies provided radio with its cheapest form of programming. Two media which had seemed to be in deadly competition, had become inseparable. Radio, after all, did not kill the record star"; Frith, 1988, p.18.

29. Garofalo, 1999, p. 327.

30. "on the consumption side, the transistor made possible truly portable radio receivers - teenagers, who were soon to become an identifiable consumer group, could now explore their developing musical tastes in complete privacy"; Garofalo, 1999, p. 334.

31. "Because these records were lighter and less breakable than shellac-based 78s, they could be shipped faster and more cheaply. Particularly because these technological advances, records emerged as a relatively inexpensive medium, which held out the very real possibility of decentralisation in the recording industry"; Garofalo, 1999, p. 334.

32. "Since recorded music was now the rule for radio, recorded companies routinely supplied free copies of new releases to deejays in the hope that they could turn them into hits ... Eventually, this practice cemented the reciprocal arrangement between radio and record companies that has defined the music industry ever since: inexpensive programming in return to free promotion"; Garofalo, 1999, p. 336.

33. "Given this picture of the changing consumer, it was apparent that our market might eventually run away from us if we remained rooted to the living room phonograph; that we had better do something about making recorded entertainment as mobile as the consumer himself and that the auto was the obvious place to begin" Irwin Tarr, [RCA Records], in "Current impact [of the tape systems] in the United States - and the Prospects", see Garofalo, 1980, p. 94.

34. Garofalo, 1999, p. 344.

35. "in 1982 the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) estimated piracy at 11 percent of the total market in the United States and Canada, 21 percent in Latin America, 30 percent in Africa, and 66 percent in Asia"; Frith, 1988, p. 93.

36. "The IFPI initiated an international campaign to levy a tax on blank tape and equipment that could be used to compensate copyright holders for their loss of income ... The legislation mandates that record companies get 38 percent of the royalty pool, performers 26 percent, and writers and publishers 17 percent each, with the remaining divided among unfeatured musicians and vocalists", see Garofalo, 1999, p. 345.

37. Shirky, 2001, p. 144.

38. A 1997 study suggested that the numbers of people watching MTV per month were "in the USA (66.8 million households) and Europe (57.4 million), but equally so in other parts in the world: Brazil - 16.2 million, Russia - 80 million; China - 16.7 million; Thailand - 12.1 million", see Tony Dowmunt, 1998, p. 246.

39. Shirky, 2001, p. 144.

40. Stratton, 1997, p. 256.

41. In his own words, "in the present phase, however, it is not so much the concentration of power in financial institutions that matters, as the explosion in new financial instruments and markets, coupled with the rise of highly sophisticated systems of financial co-ordination on a global scale", see Harvey, 1989, pp. 192-194.

42. Stratton, 1997, p. 255.

43. Op. cit., p. 256.

44. Langford, 1998, pp. 110-111.

45. Uaeuq in a special edition of Le Monde Diplomatique(July 2001), at

46. Foster, 1997, p. 24.

47. Rheingold, 1993, p. 5; Wilbur, 1997, p. 7.

48. Cooper and Harrison, 2000, p. 71; Strinati, 1996, p. 239.

49. "Audio pirates spend varying amounts of their daily lives involved in these activities ... the users we encountered typically felt that their interactions are of real social significance, as friendships are made and destroyed, and conflicts created and resolved day in and day out", see Cooper and Harrison, 2001, pp. 77-78.

50. Cooper and Harrison, 2001, p. 74.

51. Op. cit., p. 87.

52. Mahtani and Salmon, 2001, p. 167.

53. Steve Jones, 2000, pp. 222 and 225.

54. John Alderman, 2001, p. 54.

55. Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979, p. 123.

56. "Napster needs the music industry, of course, but the music industry also needs Napster, or at least something like it, to lower costs and to aggregate the demand in one place. Prohibition taught us that people will pay for a product they could make for free, as long as they can save time or get higher quality", see Shirky, 2001, p. 148.

57. "The restructuring of the music industry - away from per-unit pricing and toward subscription fees, advertising or sponsorship - will almost certainly increase total revenues. That is because the industry's current system of per-unit pricing for physical objects imposes large costs on producers and consumers. With a free-flowing electronic system, the huge percent demand for music will finally be released", from Shirky, 2001, pp. 148-149.

58. "MP3s actually made users more - not less - likely to go and buy CDs ... In fact US CD sales rose by 4 per cent during 2000 - the year when the industry was supposedly being crippled by Napster", from Wakelin, 2001, p. 86; "1999 and 2000 were banner years for the record industry, with the same groups that topped Napster sending record sales skyward" see Alderman, 2001, p. 55.

59. Dolfsma.

60. "Res Rocket and DRGN (Distributed Real - Time Groove Network) are examples of networked computer systems that offer a free public access area to amateur musicians world-wide. Using the site's software and improvisational skill, a blues pianist in Chicago, a bass player in Greece, and a drum programmer in London can play together live, 24 hours a day", see Steve Jones, 2000, p. 220.

61. Benjamin, 1999, pp. 217-218.



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Editorial history

Paper received 28 October 2001; accepted 27 December 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Music in the Age of Free Distribution: MP3 and Society by Kostas Kasaras
First Monday, volume 7, number 1 (January 2002),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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