Fifteen years ago, a new file-sharing technology called Napster provided college students and adults alike with a novel way of engaging with both the Internet and popular music. In this paper, we examine how the media framed Napster for an audience that largely was not Internet savvy at a time when listening to music was still tied to physical media. We conducted a textual analysis of stories regarding Napster appearing in both the specialized music press and the general mainstream media. We found that the mainstream media devoted considerable coverage to Napster and the file-sharing issues surrounding it while the music press barely mentioned the technology. Multiple themes emerged, some familiar to our ongoing conversation regarding the impact of new technologies, that place Napster at the nexus of cultural struggles over technology and power.
Much of our engagement with music today from downloading the latest hit song to tailoring our listening experience through customized playlists can be directly or indirectly linked to the short–lived, file–sharing community Napster. Fifteen years after Napster’s introduction, scholars are still dissecting its reception and impact, particularly in light of ongoing debates regarding the copyright and file sharing of artistic works. Our contribution to this contemporary discussion is an analysis of our past cultural conversations about Napster that inform our present dialogue regarding its ramifications. Napster’s technological, cultural and legal significance is well documented (Alderman, 2001; Ayers, 2006; Burkart and McCourt, 2006; Duckworth, 2005; Haring, 2000a) including its implications for the music industry and consumers. Napster was the first widespread instance of the Internet’s incursion into the everyday processes of consumption and distribution of the popular music audience. As documented in Jones and Lenhart, the popularity of Napster in early 2000 was such that it “essentially ‘drove’ people to use the Internet” who had not been Internet users . Given Napster’s impact on both the music industry and the music audience, we approach Napster as a music technology. In our study, we investigated how both the music press, defined as publications focused on music journalism for a niche audience, and the mainstream media, news outlets producing broad content for a generalized audience, framed Napster from its launch in 1999 through its effective shutdown in 2001. We found that the music press largely ignored Napster while mainstream news sources covered the service extensively, framing Napster as a simultaneously ingenious and nefarious technology that was spurring a cultural and economic revolution.
Technologies, such as Napster, are thoroughly cultural. Our understanding of the devices, programs, and applications that we use daily are formed in and through communication about these technologies as well as our interactions with them. The news media are an integral part of this process. As part of the routine practice of journalism, reporters and editors make decisions about what aspects of a topic to highlight and to downplay, a process referred to as framing (Entman, 1993). The way that news organizations frame a particular subject, such as music or technology, can play a role in how we make sense of it (Entman, 1993). The power of the news media to potentially shape how we see the world can be amplified based on our own experiences with a subject as well as the type of publication providing the news to us. News reports of events, people, or things with which consumers have not had previous contact can be particularly powerful (Lippmann, 1922). News coverage in the specialized press, including music newspapers and magazines, often contains a higher ratio of opinion pieces to news stories than mainstream media coverage and, as a result, also can have a substantial influence on audience understanding of a topic (Jones, 2002a). For new technologies, media representations — general and specialized press accounts as well as marketing and advertising campaigns — can play an important role in defining the innovation to consumers and establishing its acceptable use and place within society (Du Gay, et al., 1997; Marvin, 1988). Musicians, too, can be influenced by media accounts of technologies (Jones, 1992; Théberge, 1997), and popular music has had its share of encounters and controversies centered on technology (e.g., Dylan and the electric guitar, synths in rock and roll, sampling). Given that the Internet was still not part of everyday lives in 1999, public understanding of Napster, the sharing of music through it, and the controversy that ensued was likely influenced by media coverage of the service. In this literature review, we trace the evolution of how specialized and mainstream media have covered music including the technologies involved in its production and consumption.
Criticism of classical music and jazz music predates World War II in the U.S. and U.K., but rock criticism only began to develop in the 1960s, partly as an offshoot of jazz criticism (Gudmundsson, et al., 2002; Jones, 2002b). Journalistic coverage of rock music tended to report the sensational (mobs and riots, sex, or at least the intimation of it, and moral panic). Scholarly assessments of popular music criticism and of journalistic coverage of rock and roll are few and far between, likely due to study of such topics being neither fish nor fowl, not fitting neatly into popular music studies nor journalism studies. What studies there are engage in literary criticism or textual analysis of specific writers (Avery, 2001; Bonomo, 2012; DeRogatis, 2000), specific publications (Williams, 2002), or sociological and journalistic issues (Jones, 2002a; Lindberg, et al., 2005).
In contrast to the U.K., where weekly music magazines existed that covered jazz and other forms of popular music before the 1960s, the rise to prominence of rock criticism in the U.S. coincided with the rise of the U.S. underground and alternative press. Rock criticism found a particularly central place in the Village Voice, Los Angeles Free Press, Berkeley Barb, and Chicago Seed and was the raison d’être of counterculture periodicals such as Rolling Stone, Creemm and Crawdaddy! that shifted their editorial focus to music shortly after their launch. The presence of music in the underground press meant, to some extent, that mainstream journalism could continue to ignore the subject. Apart from covering the sensational aspects of the music industry, the popular press relegated music to a footnote, at least until the New Journalism began to find its way into the mainstream (Pauly, 1990).
By the time Napster was invented in 1999, the underground press, music press, and mainstream journalism had morphed significantly from the 1960s: the former were generally shadows of their past selves, usually trading as urban weeklies or monthly music magazines (few of which remain in the U.S.), while the mainstream press faced declining readership. Although the different publication types had vastly different audiences, they all had the shared interest in reporting on cultural trends related to music and new media. Each publication created “its own vernacular accounts of fan, market and audience” . Indeed, as Jones notes in a 2011 essay, “the real revolution in popular music in regard to the Internet is to be found in the availability of news, information and discussion about music and musicians facilitated by internet media” . Prior to the Internet’s widespread adoption, communities of music fans and musicians existed primarily in the pages of the music press and at live music venues.
But the convergence of new media and music was a story not only about music but also about technology, and journalists and publications focusing on new media, such as Wired and Mondo 2000, among others, also took an active interest in the emergence of MP3s, file–sharing and Napster, according to Russell (2006). In an analysis of file–sharing coverage predating Napster and through interviews with prominent journalists covering Napster, Russell finds that journalists interpreted the file–sharing debates as a bigger cultural issue. At stake, according to these specialized journalists, was whether monolithic corporate interests would usurp the Internet and file–sharing technologies created through the hacker ethos of open development and sharing. As Russell explains, early news coverage of file–sharing debates deviated from the norms of objective journalism shifting toward an advocacy role with stories that embraced the hacker ethic and, later, “traditionally anti–corporate capitalist pieces, which had a Hollywood bent, where evil corporations were squashing the individualistic, the entrepreneurial, the democratic spirit.”
Media representations of our world can influence how we make sense of a particular subject such as a music technology. Historically, the music press has played a central role in the creation and dissemination of insider knowledge regarding emerging trends within the music world and in the determination of the line between art and commerce (Jones, 2002b). Yet, as digital media and music converge, a larger cultural debate over file–sharing music technologies was finding its way into the mainstream media. To understand how people may have learned of Napster and the issues surrounding it, we focused our research on how the media collectively framed Napster. Given the evolution of the coverage of music, we also were interested in the similarities and differences between the mainstream media and music press.
We employed textual analysis, a qualitative approach, to examine how the media framed Napster and the issues related to it. Media texts and the frames constituting them are specific interpretations of a subject (Reese, 2001). As Christians and Carey (1989) explain, qualitative inquiry is best suited to addressing how we make sense of our world, and specifically regarding media content, it seeks to answer the question: “‘what is the interpretation of meaning and value created in the media and what is their relation to the rest of life?’” . Frames reflect specific attributes of a subject that are emphasized by journalists (Entman, 1993), and so, in our textual analysis we focused on the identification of overarching themes that emerge through journalists’ selection of particular information for inclusion and their presentation of the information to the audience. As is standard with interpretative methods, we began with an initial search for texts related to Napster and then further refined the study sample based on an initial review of these results before conducting a more in–depth analysis. The identification of themes is an emergent process that required multiple readings of each text.
For music press coverage of Napster, we searched the Rock’s Backpages database using the keywords Napster and MP3. Rock’s Backpages (http://www.rocksbackpages.com) contains over 22,000 articles from five decades of popular music criticism from publications such as Rolling Stone, New Musical Express, Creem, Spin, Trouser Press, Bomp, Melody Maker, Mojo, and many other music newspapers, magazines and fanzines. The database collects the full text of articles and reviews. However, while it is the largest collection of popular music criticism, Rock’s Backpages is not complete and relies on donations of periodicals, books, and archival materials (often from journalists themselves). Still, because Rock’s Backpages contains texts from the 1950s through today, it is the most complete archive of the music press available at this time.
For our analysis of the mainstream coverage of Napster, we retrieved texts from LexisNexis Academic, a database with full–text versions of news articles. We used the keyword “Napster” in the All News Search that includes print, broadcast, and online media stories. Articles for this study were published or produced in the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom from 1999–2001. To avoid repetition in the study sample, the duplicate option in LexisNexis was used to exclude articles with high similarity. The number of mentions of Napster in press accounts ranged from slightly more than a dozen in 1999 to several thousand in 2000 and 2001. For analysis, we further refined the sample to include stories, news briefs and editorials that focused on discussing Napster as an entity, how Napster worked, and Napster’s implications for the music industry and technology. Shortly after its release, Napster was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and much of the media coverage included aspects of the legal battle regarding the online sharing of music. We excluded articles that focused more on discussions of legal proceedings, of copyright law, and the progression of the court case than Napster itself. In a converged media environment, media organizations often share and republish the same content. Much of what is reported also is the product of pack journalism — the phenomenon of journalists reporting on a single topic often in similar ways. And so, it is not unusual for there to be dozens or even hundreds of stories on a particular topic or event regarding Napster, such as Napster’s impact to college campuses, that are repetitious. When engaging with this large corpus, we looked for story trends until themes related to a particular explanation of Napster or issue reached saturation. We then selected representative texts for further analysis. We analyzed the corpus of texts, 14, returned for the year 1999 and a sample of 204 texts for 2000 and 153 texts for 2001. The sample for 2001 is smaller than 2000 because many of the themes surrounding the discussion of Napster emerged as initial coverage spiked in 2000, and by 2001 many of these themes were being repeated.
Although our focus is on Napster’s introduction and early years, we undertook a keyword search in the Rock’s Backpages database to provide context and to ascertain whether mentions of it persisted beyond those early years. The search resulted in 33 articles that mention MP3s and 23 that mention Napster during the period 2000–2011 (Figure 1). None were found in 1999, the year Napster was introduced, and only six in 2000 and six in 2001. By contrast, our search using LexisNexis Academic resulted in 14 articles with a mention of Napster in 1999 (one in July, one in November, and 12 in December, at the time the lawsuit was filed). By 2000 there were more than 6,700 mentions.
Figure 1: Articles in Rock’s Backpages with a mention of Napster.
Eric Weisbard in the Village Voice wrote two articles in 2000 about the Napster phenomenon (a fourth mentions Napster, but in a quote from a source, and as a referent only), and no other periodical appears more than once among the 23 articles we found. Of Weisbard’s two articles, one is a story about an online community of digital music policy–makers, technologists and artists (Weisbard, 2000a), and the other seeks to encourage the music industry to adopt Napster and not fight it (Weisbard, 2000b). Perhaps most interestingly, none of the six articles in 2000 introduced Napster, but rather assumed the reader already knew about it. Indeed, only Weisbard’s article encouraging industry adoption of Napster treats it in any depth; the other articles all merely name check it.
We wondered whether other terms such as peer–to–peer file sharing or MP3 were used more than the name Napster, but the articles in Rock’s Backpages that mention MP3s are similarly devoid of much reporting or commentary on the technology itself and appear infrequently (Figure 2). One notable article by Charles Shaar Murray appears in MOJO in 1999 in which Pete Townshend’s ideas for the Lifehouse project are compared and contrasted with MP3s and the Internet (Murray, 1999). That is the only article with MP3s appearing in it that year. The year 2000 had six articles with that keyword, but three were stories by Weisbard and one by another writer that also mentioned Napster. The other two articles make no mention of Napster and make only passing mention of MP3s. Overall, mentions of MP3s are, as with mentions of Napster, quite few and far between, and they are just that, mentions, rather than a central focus of an article.
Figure 2: Articles in Rock’s Backpages with a mention of MP3s.
Mentions of the Internet itself were relatively scarce throughout the Rock’s Backpages corpus. There is a notable spike in articles with a mention of it in 2000 (Figure 3) due to the popularity of Napster and MP3s, but it represents a very small fraction of articles in the database that year. It could safely be said that topics related to new media were not at the forefront of concerns about which popular music journalists wished to write, about which they were asked to write, or that interview subjects brought up and then found their way into an article.
Figure 3: Articles in Rock’s Backpages with a mention of the Internet.
Mainstream news coverage, as found in our LexisNexis Academic search, centered around particularly newsworthy moments involving Napster in 1999 and 2000. Napster first appeared with a short mention at Newsbytes.com, dateline Tokyo, in a news brief that encouraged “fans of the MP3 digital audio format” to look into “this software (that) supports a virtual community and search engine that makes it a good way to find MP3 files and associated resources” (Williams, 1999). The next mention is a Salon article in November regarding Napster’s popularity on college campuses and is the first report of the RIAA lawsuit. Although barely more than a dozen texts mention Napster in 1999, within the following year, more than 6,700 articles worldwide make some reference to the file–sharing service (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Mentions of Napster in LexisNexis Academic in the year 2000, all publications, worldwide.
The peak in mainstream news coverage of Napster occurred in July 2000, when a judge ordered that Napster be shut down.
The most one could say about the appearance of the terms “Napster” and “MP3” in the music press is that they served as a form of shorthand to denote the encroachment of new media in articles critics wrote about the music business. As noted in Jones and Conner (in press), “new media are contextualized within the old, and the old get the greater attention.” The mentions of Napster and MP3s in the music press are so few that it is simply not possible to infer any themes or trends. Coverage varied from a mere mention in the context of challenges facing the music industry to a de rigeur footnote in Metallica’s history (as the earliest popular group to openly come out against Napster and file sharing) to a cultural touchstone (e.g. , references to a “post–Napster world of entertainment” (Hoskyns, 2009).
Most striking is that there was incredibly little reporting on Napster and the MP3 phenomenon in the music press, and what little there is includes even less commentary from musicians. Granted, the Rock’s Backpages archive is not, as already noted, a complete archive of all popular music criticism, but it is still surprising that, given its size, more did not appear in its rather large sample of articles and publications. It is hard to imagine that rock critics in 1999 and 2000 were unaware of Napster and MP3s, and surely some rock critics used Napster. The question, then, is why? Why did the music press seemingly ignore one of most significant technological shifts within the music industry? Had they not thought to ask musicians for an opinion on the topic, and if they did, were the responses completely unworthy of publication? The record in the music press — alone — does not account for the lack of mention of these phenomena that captured significant coverage in mainstream media, which we discuss next.
Mainstream news sources portray Napster as a controversial music–sharing service from its introduction in July 1999 through its decline. Early coverage of Napster was minimal: 14 stories in 1999 mention the file–sharing service with only two of those articles preceding the RIAA’s December announcement of its lawsuit against Napster. Although only 14 articles within the LexisNexis’ database mention the service in 1999, throughout early April 2000 the number of mentions worldwide grows as multiple universities report that their networks are overwhelmed by students downloading music from Napster and prominent artists, such as Metallica, join the legal battle to shutter the service. For 2000 and 2001, worldwide mentions of Napster hit more than 6,700 and 7,500 respectively as artists, fans, technology companies, politicians and the courts debated the future of music distribution, the impact of digital technologies, and copyright laws.
Because Napster was not covered in the music press, our discussion of the cultural conversation regarding the file–sharing service is based on the mainstream media’s coverage of it. Several themes emerged in the articles published in 1999 and 2000. Introducing Napster as a technology, journalists focused on Napster’s search and share functions and its price. Cribb (1999) describes Napster as “the latest take–it–for–free MP3 music-grabbing tool.” Some journalists referred to Napster as a search engine or compared it to one (e.g., Brown, 1999; Williams, 1999). This explanation reflects how Napster executives themselves described the technology as a “bulletin board” (Ignatius, 1999) or “Internet index” (Holman, 1999) in response to the RIAA lawsuit. Reporters also highlighted the application’s file exchange feature: News reports describe Napster as “a virtual sharing club” (Kedrosky, 1999) that provided “access to a huge on–line swap market” (Holman, 1999). But not all portrayals of Napster’s sharing capabilities were positive. Multiple stories also incorporated language from the RIAA lawsuit that accused Napster of “creating an electronic bazaar for music piracy” (Clark, 1999). Often, readers were confronted with dueling descriptions of Napster — a convenient way to obtain new music versus a facilitator of theft — within the same article (e.g., Consumer Multimedia Report, 1999; Cribb, 1999; Holman, 1999).
When explaining new technologies, journalists often draw comparisons between the new device or program and its predecessors, and a similar trend emerges in news coverage of Napster. Initial articles honed in on an aspect of the program that sets it apart functionally and, potentially, legally from other MP3 distribution software and Web sites, namely its community structure. In addition to portraying Napster as a search engine and online sharing site, journalists also discussed its community function referring to it generally as an “online community” or, stressing its focus on music, as “an online community of MP3 users” (Puxley, 2000) and a “music swapping community” (Borland, 2000). The community design and label originates with Napster founder Shawn Fanning who told Salon (Brown, 2000) in February 2000 that he designed Napster to replicate Internet Relay Chat groups that bring people together around a common interest. Brown (2000), writing in Salon, explained Napster’s IRC origins:
Staying true to the old IRC adage of share–and–share–alike (as in don’t download something unless you are going to upload something else), Napster’s open structure means that there are no ‘lurkers.’ Finding one Napster user with similar tastes often leads to a treasure trove of new and interesting music you’ll like; everyone who uses Napster, it is predetermined, is willing to share. 
For some journalists, the key aspect of the Napster community design was not its hacker ethic but its legal ramifications in lawsuits against the company. Napster executives argued that because the application enabled users to meet and share music among themselves, Napster was not responsible for copyright infringement (Puxley, 2000; Spring, 2000). Journalists and experts also speculated whether this structure would enable Napster to beat the legal challenges against it (e.g., Fernandez, 2000; Kedrosky, 1999). In an op–ed in the National Post, business professor Paul Kedrosky (1999) explained, “... there (have) been a number of cases establishing that Internet service providers (ISPs) are not responsible for the sorts of things that transit their wires. In creating a community of music lovers and not storing any of the music on its site, Napster is arguably in a similar position.” Although the community structure differentiated Napster from other music sharing services, news stories focused more on the application’s file–sharing capability than its community–building aspect.
Initial news stories also focused on Napster as a technological innovation superior to its predecessors, namely the compact disc. Journalists pointed to the program’s cost, or lack thereof, and the ease with which people could browse hundreds of thousands of songs (e.g., Graham, 2000; Harmon, 2000; Holman, 1999; Puxley, 2000) and hunt down hard–to–find tracks or independent artists (e.g., Brown, 2000; Fernandez, 2000; Haring, 2000b) as key reasons that Napster, in conjunction with the MP3 file format, was a game changer. These reports also positioned music delivery by Napster as superior to the CD because Napster users could select only the songs they want, instead of paying for an entire CD, and customize their libraries and playlists. Journalists also reported on Napster’s exponential growth as evidence that consumers prefer free, online file–sharing to purchasing CDs.
Similar to Russell’s (2006) analysis of the expert coverage of the legal and cultural debates regarding file–sharing, some of which included discussions of Napster, we found that the mainstream media portray Napster as more than a popular, cutting–edge technology: Journalists and industry experts often went one step beyond arguing that Napster and the MP3 were useful technological advancements to claiming that they were a direct threat to the industry by propelling a cultural and economic “revolution.” Headlines in the first half of 2000 declared, “Music revolution with new software” (Prangle, 2000), “Napster’s technology appears destined to revolutionize e–commerce” (Liedtke, 2000) and “Industry sleepless over Napster” (Ingram, 2000). News reports portrayed Napster as threatening the major music labels’ control over distribution (e.g., Cribb, 1999; Ingram, 2000). Cribb (1999) explained, “In fact, this power-to-the-people liberation movement seems to be growing. The latest take–it–for–free MP3 music–grabbing tool generating industry buzz is called Napster ... Already–nervous record executives are going to need Prozac after this” . As Cribb’s (1999) comment suggests, the copyright lawsuit between Napster and the RIAA was recast in media accounts as a power–play among fans, artists and the music industry. Rosenberg (2000) explained how the lines were drawn: “In the short months since its debut last fall, Napster has become both a revolutionary banner for anti–establishment music lovers and a lightning rod for media–corporation paranoia over piracy and copyright infringement” . Using social movement rhetoric, such as the headline “The man can’t stop our music” (Levy, 2000), media outlets positioned Napster as fighting a larger, cultural battle against high costs and barriers to accessing music.
However, for Napster, the court battle was also a fight to keep operating. News reports regarding the lawsuit explained that Napster was willing to work with the music industry it was fighting (e.g., Harmon, 2000; Segal, 2000). In late 2000, Napster signed a deal with the music division of Bertelsmann BMG and announced a move toward a paid service (Harris, 2000). In the wake of the announcement, news organizations portrayed Napster as a once “rogue” company (Harris and Gentile, 2000) that may be going “legit” (Huhn, 2000). Lawson (2000) explained the shift from users’ perspectives: “For Napster fans, it’s like the upstart kid on the corner putting on a power suit, heading up to the executive offices and playing by the rules.” The Associated Press asked if the fight for more consumer control of the industry is ending: “It begs the question: Is this the end of the free–music Internet revolution? Or has Napster simply taken itself out of that game?” (Harris and Gentile, 2000). Other publications ceded victory to the music industry, declaring “The revolution’s over, copyright’s still king” (Corcoran, 2000). As Napster partnered with more music labels and devised a payment model, some news coverage, which incorporated Napster users as sources, portrayed the service as a “sell out,” and the focus shifted, from explaining “How Napster gives the finger to the music biz” (Sentinel, 2000) to discussing its decision to go “corporate” (e.g., Harris and Gentile, 2000; Sperounes, 2001).
It is important to stress that the shift in rhetoric from revolution to sellout is regarding Napster as a company. Despite the actions of Napster executives, media coverage still portrayed its peer–to–peer structure as playing an important role in music distribution and e–commerce. For example, while weighing the pros and cons of Napster, Cohen (2000) argued, “So Napster has been good for music in some ways, bad in others. What can’t be argued is that it’s been hugely significant.” A headline in the Canadian National Post stated, “Napster row masks ‘deeper revolution’: Peer–to–peer file sharing will reshape computer industry” (Avery, 2001) while the Associated Press claimed, “Napster’s architecture sparks new Internet revolution” (Fordahl, 2001). And so, while Napster may not have materialized as the social revolution that some people had hoped, it was seen as having a lasting impact on online technologies more generally.
Another important aspect of media coverage regarding Napster was the way in which news organizations described the people who created and used the technology. When Napster was introduced, journalists portrayed it as a technology for youth, particularly college students. Shawn Fanning was a teenager when he launched Napster, and most stories that mentioned Fanning also included references to his age, to his youthful appearance, and to his status as a former college student or college dropout. For Levy (2000), Fanning’s age was an important factor in the technology’s design:
Napster’s concept seems simple, but of course only a 19–year–old mind could have invented it. Certainly no one who grew up in analog days — when selecting new songs involved carefully dropping a needle onto a flat black plastic pizza — would have even considered the concept of obtaining just about any piece of music instantly. And it took a true Internet kid, Northeastern University freshman Shawn Fanning, to figure out that the way to do it was to allow anybody free and total access to everybody else’s music collection.
Journalists also explained that youth was an important factor in Napster adoption: For a generation familiar with computers, the technology was easy to learn (Kerkstra, 2000). Napster users interviewed for stories are predominantly teens, college students and in their twenties, and journalists often identified students as the predominant age group swapping songs on Napster. For example, an ABC News broadcast stated, “Created by a 19–year–old college student, Napster has become an Internet phenomenon with several million dedicated users, mostly college students downloading everything from classical to top 40” (Cho, 2000). The connection between Napster and college students was further bolstered by coverage of the controversy the application caused at universities where students were downloading so much music that it caused networks to slow to a crawl (Guersney, 2000; Kelsey, 2000). When colleges blocked access to Napster because of the network issues, some students vocally opposed the move claiming administrators were censoring them (Drake, 2000; Guersney, 2000; Kelsey, 2000; Kerkstra, 2000). This fight between universities and students over Napster also was part of the rhetoric of revolution surrounding Napster and a fight between youth and “the establishment that consisted of both college administrators and the music industry” (e.g., Levy, 2000). The Springfield (Ill.) State–Journal and Register (2000) explained how Napster took its place in the long–standing youth versus authority battle in the music world:
Where popular music is concerned, listeners in their late teens and early twenties historically have determined which trends become long–lasting phenomena. Their listening and buying habits over the years have proven immune to the cajoling of the business side of pop music. The old guard in the Napster situation, however, is not the parents of the converted. In this case, record companies, the Recording Industry Association of America and some artists themselves. (State–Journal Register, 2000)
Situating Napster and its coverage within the broader developments related to the digitalization of music, the coverage of Napster is notably deterministic in its tone, making it seem as if there was an inevitability to technology’s disruption of music and the music business. This is reflected in early mainstream media stories that portray Napster as an “online community,” employing rhetoric commonly found at the time and popularized by e–commerce proponents such as Hagel and Armstrong (1997). Bandwidth limitations were such, given that many Internet users were still employing dial–up modems to go online, that a downloading boom seemed, at best, off in the future. Much of the discussion in business circles about music and the Internet in the late 1990s centered on developing audiences, fans and online communities who artists, radio stations and record labels could more easily reach, rather than on directly delivering music online. Napster’s advantage was its development by a college student in a university setting in which bandwidth was not a problem (Jones, et al., 2009). Napster’s early spread via colleges in the U.S. helped keep it under the radar of news media and the record industry, but as with many other digital and Internet technologies, use by college students seemed not only a bellwether but also a determinant of future spread to the general U.S. population.
Indeed, although initial coverage of Napster painted it as a technology for the young, news stories throughout 2000 also indicated its use among “older” adults was growing. Napster was not only banned on college campuses but also was restricted in businesses (Gibbs, 2000). Following the release of a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project that revealed half of Napster users were over the age of 30, a Minnesota paper declared in a headline, “Napster: Not just for teens, college kids” (Suzukamo, 2000). Stories regarding Napster before it shut down explained its user base as more heterogeneous.
The focus of our study was analysis of how popular music critics and mainstream journalists framed Napster at its introduction. Our analysis of coverage in the popular music press in particular was hindered by the lack of coverage we found. Our analysis of mainstream media finds Napster was slow to garner attention, but once it did, the story was a hot one for journalists. Multiple interconnected themes emerged: Napster was a cutting–edge innovation — part of a technological and cultural revolution. It was a right to be protected or, to a lesser extent, a threat to be quashed. It was evidence of the digital prowess of a new generation. And so, we have the music press who appear to be silent about Napster and the mainstream media who can’t stop talking about it. Although their coverage of Napster appears to be the polar opposite, it is, in fact, connected by a singular theme — The Napster story was about technology. This coverage was neither about music nor even about the music industry, despite the thread throughout mainstream media coverage of Napster’s threat to the major labels. To a lesser but notable extent the coverage was also about the Internet’s impact on commerce, as Napster was portrayed to be riding the crest of the dotcom bubble in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Stories about Napster served as an emblem of things to come thanks to new media and the young people who, it was said, were embracing computers and the Internet. There are interesting parallels to this discourse in the coverage of rock and roll in its earliest days, and examination of the similarities and differences of those will be undertaken in future research.
As Russell (2006) observed, file–sharing services were widely discussed by journalists specializing in technology. Napster was, first and foremost, an application, a technology. It is possible that the music press did not cover Napster because the issues surrounding it stemmed directly from the technology, and its relation to the music industry was secondary. Perhaps, music journalists did not immediately understand that Napster would prove to be a threat to the major record labels and, ultimately, to sales of physical products and established revenue streams. It is also possible that music journalists were not technologically savvy or Internet users, and thus not very aware of Napster’s operation and potential. It is nevertheless notable that even well after Napster, the music press gives short shrift to the Internet and MP3s. Members of the music press may perceive their roles differently than do mainstream journalists and have different definitions of newsworthiness (Brown, 1978), and thus, Napster and MP3s may have not met these criteria for newsworthiness. Music critics also may have viewed themselves primarily as “opinion leaders,” as Albert writes in a 1958 article, rather than reporters. Quite simply, Napster may not have been in the purview of the music press, but we need additional research to fully elucidate the reasons for this omission.
With the mainstream media, we have the media texts regarding Napster and, thanks to Russell (2006), interviews with journalists to examine. Looking back at the overarching themes within mainstream media stories, we see a focus on technology and the intersection of technology and power. True, journalists often discuss the ramifications of Napster for the music industry, the artists, and the fans, but this conversation revolves around how the technology works, how it is better than its predecessors, how it shifts power. Further evidence that the mainstream media focused first on the technology of Napster and second, or later, on the music, emerges as file–sharing services pop up for movies and other media. An Associated Press story regarding the movie industry declares in July 2000, “Movie studio lawyer says movie industry did not want to be ‘Napsterized’” (Neumeister, 2000). Here Napsterized refers to the sharing of unauthorized files across the Internet, and Napster comes to carry a connotation for file–sharing in general.
Our findings tell us that mainstream journalists find technological disruptions to the business of popular music particularly interesting, or at least believe their audience will be interested in it, mirroring the trend found by Jones and Conner (in press) in the music press. Napster provided the singular opportunity, a moment, when art, fandom, technology and commerce intertwined and made visible the tensions between them. Fifteen years after Napster’s introduction, Internet–based technologies continue to disrupt the distribution and consumption of popular media content from music to television to movies. Discourse regarding these innovations often contains familiar themes of power, control, and access. The importance of Napster’s reception by the music and the popular press then is not restricted to a historical moment; rather, it provides a foundation on which to understand issues that have continued to arise in relation to Internet use, file sharing, commerce, and art.
About the authors
Andrea L. Guzman is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Steve Jones is UIC Distinguished Professor of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
E–mail: sjones [at] uic [dot] edu
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Received 9 September 2014; accepted 10 September 2014.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
Napster and the press: Framing music technology
by Andrea L. Guzman and Steve Jones.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 10 - 6 October 2014
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
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