Editorial: On the 15-year anniversary of Napster - Digital music as boundary object
First Monday

Editorial: On the 15-year anniversary of Napster - Digital music as boundary object by Raphael Nowak and Andrew Whelan

In 1999, the launch of the peer–to–peer application Napster seemed to augur a new era of digital distribution for recorded music and the sociability around it, raising in turn fundamental questions about models of production, distribution and consumption of music which, up to that point, had come to appear permanent and unassailable. Developed by Northeastern University student Shawn Fanning, his friend Sean Parker, and uncle, John Fanning, the application was initially devised to share music among friends. Although there were applications and cultures of use preceding Napster that enabled users to exchange digital music files on the Internet (perhaps most notably FTP servers, the Usenet alt.binaries groups, and latterly MP3.com), and despite the fact that, in retrospect, Napster had limited capabilities (particularly dial–up speed at that time, and the technological and legal issues arising from use of a central server), it rapidly became a hub for mass digital music sharing and exchange. In about a year, over 32 million people had installed and used the application (Smith, 2000a, 2000b). By 2001, the number of active users had risen to 50 million (Bergmann, 2004). In the popular press and to some extent in the popular imagination, Napster then became the symbol of a new digital era.

The perceived impact of the technology and the spread and scale of adoption attracted the attention of music industry bodies. Following highly publicized copyright infringement lawsuits involving artists such as Metallica, Madonna and Dr. Dre, online exchanges of music became subject to heightened surveillance and prosecution, and music and cultural industry bodies acted on and campaigned for increasingly stringent intellectual property law reform and trade agreements across the globe. The president of AOL Time Warner at the time summarized the situation as follows: “The major labels were asleep at the switch. They are asleep no longer.” [1]

At the core of the disputes around copyright, access and illicit distribution was the MP3 file, the primary format, fetish and currency of musical exchange:

The dominance of the MP3 music file format was largely the result of the conveniently small size of the compressed file and its distribution by Napster file–sharing software, which became hugely popular between its release in 1999 and its first closure in 2001. (Martin, et al., 2010)

The Napster “moment” is thus a convergence, a hybrid network: a disruptive articulation of format, medium, platform, network, hardware and social and cultural practice, at a particular critical juncture in the history of the Internet, and in the history of recorded popular music as mass entertainment. Earlier positions in prior debates (about home taping, for example, or the appropriate stance for musicians’ unions at the advent of the disc jockey) resurfaced in different guises. In many respects, the controversy around Napster also presaged and set the ground for debates that later took place: about torrenting and “pirate politics”; about democratization, free speech and the digital commons; about fair use and remix culture; about disintermediation and revenue streams on YouTube and Spotify; about entrepreneurialism and micro–celebrity in an attention economy; about clicktivism, proprietary social media and user–generated content; about controlled substances, restricted objects, 3D printing, and the darknet; and more broadly, about the unsettled economics and participatory cultures of digital media use and distribution.

In facilitating the free exchange of MP3 files between peers, Napster was implicated in declining recorded music sales. Shawn Fanning, however, had a different interpretation:

As Napster grew and ultimately hit its peak, if you look at CD sales [they] were up as long as Napster was popular. The point at which Napster started filtering (blocking certain songs, after a court order in March 2001) is the point at which the record industry announced that the constant increase in their CD sales suddenly changed. [2]

The “file–sharing=lost sales” narrative is complicated by a range of features of the market at that time. Reissues drove a significant portion of the apparently healthy CD market in the 1990s — a particular demographic upgrading their vinyl collections. The industry was itself consolidating, and as a consequence the range and variety of music being released was decreasing. The price of CDs increased at the same time that, in the post–September 11 recession, spending on leisure goods declined. Simultaneously, the range of leisure options for industry target markets was proliferating (such as gaming and mobile telephony, and perhaps most importantly, the Internet itself).

The initial approach adopted by the music industries was widely perceived to be alienating to their core constituency. Although in historical terms the music industries had themselves thrived on the tactics of “piracy” (David, 2012; Lessig, 2004), the dominant rhetoric discursively positioned the most loyal and active music consumers as thieves (rather than as the hyper–consumers and agents and subjects of viral media that they would come to appear from later perspectives). Cease–and–desist “spamigation” garnered wide publicity, and an impressive and still expanding arsenal of legal and policy instruments defending the content industries’ economic interests was developed, but these strategies failed to arrest or retard file–sharing. The digital distribution ecology after Napster saw a whole array of technological advances; most notably direct download services (such as RapidShare, Megaupload and MediaFire), and the BitTorrent protocol. While Napster and the MP3 format concentrated attention on music, before and after Napster, a wide range of media forms have circulated through file–sharing communities and continue to do so, including books, images, and film.

Gradually, the intervening period has also seen digital music distribution technologies in close relations with speculative investment capital as well as with more established music industry entities: the supersession of some distributive channels and industry elements, and the development of legal alternatives to illicit file–sharing (Amazon, iTunes, then Spotify, Deezer). This would seem to lend credence to the idea that the internationally organized legal and policy response to file–sharing “was not a response to falling profitability due to piracy, but instead a successful counter–strategy to relieve anti–trust pressures while legally securing the Internet as an alternative distribution channel” (Denegri–Knott, 2004). There has not, however, been a clear transition to digitization of the means by which music is produced, distributed and consumed. Rather, these means are multiple and dynamic, and remain in flux.

In 2005, David Beer (2005a, 2005b) edited the very first special issue of First Monday on the theme of “music and the Internet” at http://firstmonday.org/issue/view/211. In his editorial, Beer noted that the emergence of the Internet as a space for musical exchanges contains the premises of contrary logics. He writes: “These competing utopian and dystopian rhetorical formulations have been woven into the conceptualization and ideological representation of the relationship between music and the Internet” (Beer, 2005a). Beer’s objective was to map out the ways in which “Technology (in this case the Internet), rhetoric, and everyday life (the practices of music creation and appropriation)” are interwoven. Beer summarizes (the short history of the Internet) by emphasizing a series of contradictory logics and binaries. He writes: “The Internet has been constructed and reconstructed as a paradoxical space of democracy and control, creativity and constraint, art and cognition, truth and deviance, and, perhaps most interestingly, as both biological and mechanical” (Beer, 2005a). Nine years after the issue on ‘music and the Internet’ in First Monday, and 15 years after the advent of Napster, the constitutive interrelationships between the Internet, music and everyday life seem to have resulted in much more fragmented cultures than the initial conflicts of interests and dichotomies (utopian/dystopian) would have had us imagine.

In preparing for this special edition, it struck us as editors that this fragmentation and ambivalence is evident in narrative accounts of the period of time since Napster, which so often focus on particular and very specific historical moments. These moments, in scholarly, journalistic, and everyday description, seem in their narrative contexts to crystallize and highlight models or ideals of how music and technology should or could intersect, often with musicians, and/or listeners and fans, variously positioned as “rightly” future–oriented; correctly understanding the brave new digital mediascape, or else as badly getting it “wrong”. The effect of these moments in their telling is often to constitute an understanding of the “correct” or appropriate moral roles for the law, or for the market, or profit, or for the extent to which particular forms of under–articulated moral and affective entitlements should not be subject to seemingly distorting legal or market intervention. These are moments that afford in the telling an airing of delicate balances, a calibration of the limits to the “rights” and “obligations” of the parties to the encounter that is the recorded musical work as commodity.

There are a number of such moments, but perhaps a list of the most commonly told would include the following:

In early 2004, copies of American DJ Danger Mouse’s recording The Grey Album, distributed initially on CD, circulated widely online. The recording was a mash–up, featuring a cappella vocals from Jay–Z’s Black Album and instrumental samples from the Beatles’ White Album. February 24th of that year was named “Grey Tuesday”, a day of online protest organized in response to EMI and Capitol Records (Universal Music Group), who sought to have distribution of the recording stopped. The protest action on Grey Tuesday consisted largely of downloading The Grey Album and posting it online for download. This was considered to be a kind of civil disobedience, against copyright–as–censorship (Howard–Spink, 2004; Rambarran, 2013). Danger Mouse, also known as Brian Burton, went on to significant commercial success, including producing the Gorillaz album Demon Days (EMI) and the Beck album Modern Guilt (Universal Music Group).

In October of 2007, English alternative rock band Radiohead released their seventh album, In Rainbows, as a “pay–what–you–want” download, and as a CD later on that year. Their demarche was yet another sign of the band’s increasing distrust in major record labels. From the early days of file–sharing, front singer and leader Thom Yorke had stated: “The cool thing about Napster is that it ... encourages enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do” (2000, in Napster, 2001). The band also refused to make their catalogue available on iTunes until 2008. After being released from their contract with EMI, Radiohead decided to let their fans decide how they would obtain their seventh opus. Of course, the band already enjoyed massive commercial and critical recognition at the time, and In Rainbows proved more successful than their previous albums (see Madden, 2009), even if a large number of downloaders (60 percent) chose not to pay for the album (Morrow, 2009). There was much debate following Radiohead’s initiative: initially, about whether this was how music “should” be distributed in future; and latterly, about whether Radiohead had really done anything all that radical. Indeed, when releasing their eighth album The King of Limbs in 2011, with the support of independent music label XL Recordings, the band chose traditional means to diffuse their music, such as online legal downloading through iTunes, and CD.

In 2009, Jammie Thomas–Rasset, from Brainerd, Minnesota, was found liable for copyright infringement and ordered to pay statutory damages of US$1.92 million, for downloading and sharing (“making available”) 24 songs on the file–sharing platform Kazaa. This was the first file–sharing infringement case in the U.S. to come before a jury. The case had been before the courts since 2007. In September 2012, the damages were revised (again), to US$222,000.

In 2012 Amanda Palmer, formerly of the American duo Dresden Dolls, raised over US$1 million on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to release the album Theatre is Evil, which subsequently reached number 10 in the Billboard albums chart in September of that year. The Kickstarter campaign shows Palmer holding up a sign, which reads “This is the future of music”. In the same year, Palmer requested local musicians to support her on tour dates. These musicians would be paid “in beer, hugs and merch”. She later decided to pay these musicians, in money.

We could continue recounting such stories; there are many of them. Doubtless readers can think of their own additions to this list. As they are told, an interesting feature these moments share is their capacity for articulating moral positions on music. The teller of and the listener to the story sense out the shapes of their respective moral understandings, and by extension of their ideas of good lives and good societies, through talking about the “worth” or “value” of music and musical labor, as this is experienced, and as it is signaled by costs of various kinds (Whelan, 2014).

When we review these moments, yes, we reflect on stories about the unpredictable and volatile world of popular music online. We contemplate how music is distributed, how it is marketed, in mediascapes where the sense is that most of the traditional landmarks seem to have stopped making sense (regardless of their mythic status), and where there are not (yet) “new” landmarks, with stability sufficient to warrant use as aids to navigation. But we reflect also on music as a flashpoint in a rapidly changing social and cultural environment. This is music in use in inescapably monetized and highly liquid media environments, and it raises anew the question of how music, and thus cultural work more broadly, could and should be sustained, and how dues can be rightly allocated and earned from it. This is music with a dynamic status in cultural hierarchies, music as a continuous feature of ubiquitous media cultures, music as an element in cultures of promotion. Often, then, the story is not exactly or only about music online: it is about the entrepreneurial economics of promotional culture in digital media.

The narrative often defaults along these lines, becoming one where music is a sign of community, and under the ideology of the technological sublime, community was going to be rejuvenated by the Internet, and so music would become accordingly “free”. There is satisfaction when this ideal appears to be borne out, and frustration when, as so often, it goes wrong, although not always in the “right” ways — the ways we would anticipate as validation of the model. The implication, surely, is that we should attend very carefully to the assumptions we bring to the field, constituted as it is from assumptions so successfully and widely shared that they become entirely tacit.

Part of the intention with this special issue is to disrupt some of these tacit assumptions. We hope that the papers making up this issue demonstrate that things can look very different from other vantage points than those provided by the customary and often reiterated narratives. These narratives have predictable coordinates, and despite the fantasy of the deterritorialized or disembedded online musical ecology — of music “freed” from the tyranny of space — they follow very familiar trajectories, both in terms of the political and economic geography of cultural production, and in terms of ideas of what music–as–commodity or music–as–artefact is and how the Internet is presumed to change it.

Repetition of these narratives tends in consequence to normalize a particular kind of provincialism, which is not only in this instance reducible to U.S.–centricity. The continuously reiterated omission of elsewhere leads to a situation where people come to think of these narratives as highlighting universal and self-evident truths. Music online, however, has radically discrepant meanings in different regions, in different cultural and institutional contexts, and to social groups working against and contesting their own, distinct dominant perspectives. In other contexts and other places, the relationship between music and networked culture becomes salient for very different reasons, or on grounds shaped by very different local histories, contingencies and priorities. The forms and configurations digital music takes in these contexts can seem weirdly familiar to the dominant perspectives expressed in the conventional narratives, but in reality these forms and configurations can only be properly grasped with respect to their local contexts of emergence.

This argument for sensitivity to the local is supported also by the idea that insofar as unitary or “macro” perspectives on the issues of digital music distribution are possible, many of the large scale technological, economic and legal catalysts for changes in music distribution online are completely obscure except to (some) industry professionals in the music industry, law, or technology, and detailed knowledge of them is often occluded, or made manifest in research that is either not transparent, or not publicly available. A clear lesson from the disputes about file sharing, broadband use, revenue and intellectual property in the last decade and a half is that these macro perspectives, rendered credible and audible as they are by market logics or other kinds of institutional hegemony, are themselves partial, elliptical, and often highly motivated.

The way these kinds of stories are told, then, often serves particular purposes. Insofar as specific elements are foregrounded or the stories invite particular kinds of understandings, they mobilize particular kinds of popular narratives (big content is bad, worthy musicians will win out, markets support talent, fans are community etc.). Yet the array of interests, claims and intentions that define these stories and make them sensible are only fragments in complex dynamics, requiring a collective effort to grasp.

Digital or networked music culture is not, therefore, one thing, although it is the sort of object that enables these kinds of narratives or facilitates them. The changes wrought on music cultures by the digital age of music technology are inherently complex, dispersed, non–linear and ambivalent. They go beyond the continuity/disruption dichotomy. One example of such complexity is given by how audiences use and redefine different types of music technologies to access music content, sometimes associating particular practices of listening or engagement with particular media forms, and particular genres (Maggauda, 2011; Nowak, 2014). Processes of efficiency, cost and “logic” alone do not drive the uptake and abandonment of particular media and distributive forms, although they may intersect with them or come retrospectively to be mapped on to them. The changing media environment remains dynamic, and definitive statements about outcomes often come to seem foolhardy with hindsight: the history of music and the Internet remains a work in progress.

With this foundational caveat in mind, it is worth contextualizing the papers making up this special edition with reference to some conceptual resources, which can perhaps facilitate understanding of the roles played by digital music in the 15 years since the launch of Napster. When looking at the interconnections between the Internet and music, the course of recent history seems to inscribe new technologies under the umbrella of “complexity” (Urry, 2005; 2006). John Urry groups under the term “complexity” a set of social transformations and relations that are increasingly characterized by their non–linearity, which seems to perfectly apply to the case of music in the digital age. Urry writes: “complex social interactions are likened to walking through a maze whose walls rearrange themselves as one walks through; new footsteps have to be taken in order to adjust to the walls of the maze that are adapting to each movement made through the maze” [3]. Insofar as the Internet has become “participative” in “Web 2.0” (John, 2012), users, technologies, musical forms and cultures of use both constitute and move the walls of the maze through their online action and interaction. The sorts of narratives we have alluded to participate in the complexity of the relations between music and the Internet. They point to it, at the same time that they instantiate it.

This strangely prismatic sense of music/technology as a field of inquiry is congruent with the understanding of digitally distributed, networked music as a “boundary object”, the heterogeneous force animating the maze. Boundary objects, in the classic definition, are

... both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual–site use. They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds. [4]

Tracing this conception through Fujimura (1992) and McSherry (2001) to Strathern (2004), the phrase “boundary object” can be used to refer to nodal events or entities, situated at the junctures of distinct discourses and distinct local cultures and social realities. Our point is not just that the replicating, moving digital audio files first foregrounded by Napster served to bring discrepant localities to awareness of themselves (as the subjects of collective practices, as social groups with specific interests, and specific positions in technological infrastructures and legal frameworks). Digital audio culture has long been recognized for having also produced its own subcultures, often with only tangential connections to local, geographical “scenes” (Caspary and Manzenreiter, 2003). Nor is it simply that these audio files continue to play such a critical role in producing dialogue across and with other such localities, highlighting in the course of the production of translation contexts some of the ethical and social problematics involved as they reconstitute the fields they move through (Novak, 2011). These are crucial and valid insights involved in considering digital music as a boundary object: both trafficked, and, thereby, the conduit of traffic. What is perhaps most interesting about the boundary object is not that it is not coherently unitary, but how it is that it continues to be spoken of as though it were [5]. Digital music is only ever fractionally coherent, and there is only ever partial jurisdiction over it. Most fundamentally, this insight applies to digital music as it circulates across the terrains of everyday life, and as it is shaped in and by scholarly and interpretive discourses that aim to make sense of this process; they too utilize and produce it in this way. The papers assembled here point precisely to this feature and role for digital music over the last fifteen years: as a boundary object, digital music distribution serves also as a translation context, where distinct disciplinary formations can come together to talk it identifiably into being from their own productively partial perspectives.

First Monday is the perfect location to offer insights into some of the issues that constitute digital music as a boundary object. Indeed, the journal has always been at the forefront of issues related to digital music cultures, publishing many papers tackling the technological, cultural and social changes associated with the advent and dissemination of digital music cultures. From the emergence of digital technologies and file sharing, First Monday has featured pieces that interrogated this phenomenon, notably, addressing “piracy” (Kasaras, 2002); investigating the nature of exchange on the peer–to–peer application Gnutella (Adar and Huberman, 2000) exploring the idea of Napster itself as a community (Poblocki, 2001); discussing issues of copyright (Bowrey and Rimmer, 2005; Dolfsma, 2000; Geist, 2005; Logie, 2003; Söderberg, 2002); and, investigating the emerging online music industries (Fox, 2002).

As the scenario grew more complex with the establishment of digital music markets and digital music distribution as a licit service, First Monday remained at the forefront of research in the field, publishing papers that addressed such phenomena as Internet activism and mash–ups (Howard–Spink, 2004); podcasting (Crofts, et al., 2005); subcultures (Ebare, 2004); netlabels (Galuszka, 2012); independent musicians (Pfahl, 2005); crowdfunding (Galuszka and Bystrov, 2014), artists’ earnings (Kretschmer, 2005); Internet mobile technologies (Dolan, 2000); ringtones (Gopinath, 2005); cloud technology (Morris, 2011); press reactions to file–sharing before the RIAA–Napster court case (Russell, 2006); gifting (McGee and Skågeby, 2005); and tactics of file–sharing and file–sharing suppression (Martin, et al., 2010). These various contributions have proved vital to the community of inquiry concerned with the heritage and ecology of peer–to–peer in all its cultural, social, technological, economic and legal complexity. With this current edition, First Monday is again the site of a critical discussion between a range of researchers, from different national contexts and disciplines, presenting original research on essential features of digital audio culture at the advent of Napster and after it. The contributions are arranged as follows:

In the first paper, David Carter and Ian Rogers interrogate the narrative of democratization that has accompanied the digital age of music technologies and permeates the discourses around some of its iconic media, notably, Napster and Pitchfork. They proceed in critiquing the taken–for–granted notion that digital technologies have disrupted the ways music is produced and accessed by individuals, and rather anchor these new technologies within logics of continuity. Carter and Rogers see in these technologies a false promise of democratization, given that they only integrate a select few into the market place they ostensibly initially critiqued.

Following this, Dan L. Burk looks at how p2p designers and entrepreneurs have adapted to copyright laws to increase the technical possibilities of legally controversial applications. While copyright is intended to respond to technological evolutions and defend artistic creativity, Burk demonstrates adroitly how, following the court decision against Napster in 2001, subsequent technologies (such as Grokster, StreamCast, and KaZaa) learned from the legal reproaches directed to Napster and were quite carefully designed to bypass them, to the extent that (content) copyright can arguably be described as an unwitting boon to (p2p software) innovation. Analogously, technological development stimulates increasingly sophisticated forms of legal liability. Contrary to the conventional picture of law lagging to “catch up” with technological development, Burk’s account implies technological and legal developments in close dialogue, and he shows how legal decisions in the early days have come to shape the terrain for many of the developments which followed.

Then, starting from the premise that Napster, and access to digital music more broadly, was an important driver of early Internet adoption, Andrea Guzman and Steve Jones analyze media coverage of Napster at the time of its short–lived ascent and ultimate closure, in both mainstream news and in the music press. Given that Napster’s relatively low–key or “below the radar” early diffusion was across U.S. college campuses (and that broadband was not commonly available outside of colleges and work environments in the U.S. at that time), press coverage was how most people first learned about Napster and MP3 file–sharing. Guzman and Jones find that, oddly, the music press barely mentioned Napster at that time: Napster seems to have been understood, by music journalists, at least, as a “technological” rather than a “musical” development. They discuss the way in which Napster was presented or “framed” in media coverage, with particular aspects of the technology and the sociality of the platform back– or foregrounded, and present fascinating early descriptions of the technology at a time when “what it is” was not at all a question with a clear and straightforward answer. The technology, its users, and its developers, were in some coverage positioned rhetorically as almost a kind of countercultural social movement, with young people taking on “the Establishment” for their “rights” to music.

Ard Huizing and Jan A. van der Wal provide an original exploration of the “Warez” MP3 scene, its rise, and its fall. Drawing on insider research tools, they identify relational, technological and organizational factors to explain the initial success of the scene. However, the subculture caught the attention of the RIAA, and Huizing and van der Wal show how it became disorganized by particular elements from within. The sophistication of the technology and its relative ease of use slowly diffused the “scene”, at the same time that it became increasingly populated by more casual and less passionate “sceners”.

The article by Florence Nowak provides an essential anthropological account of the transformations of the digital age in the Garhwali region of India. The omnipresence of MP3 files disseminates local music, and provides a temporary profit for artists. However, the global transformations of the digital are incorporated within local life and the local market for music. The particular context of the Garhwali region increasingly entangles issues of modernity versus tradition, urban versus rural, and western India versus Garwhali.

In Germany, the royalty–collecting agency GEMA has been involved in a long–running — and at the time of writing still unresolved — dispute with YouTube concerning remuneration for audio streamed on YouTube. While the German context is unique, the strategies deployed by the parties concerned, and how they are presented and contested, is indicative of broader tendencies in the contemporary controversy about streaming audio and how the issue of appropriate remuneration for labels, publishers and authors can be resolved. In his paper, Philip Stade conducts a discourse analysis of the various positions to this debate as it is conducted online, in the press, and in statements from GEMA and YouTube, with particular reference to the positioning and pre–positioning conducted by the parties. Stade is able to show the tacit and under–articulated elements to the positions assumed by GEMA, by YouTube, and by their respective advocates and critics, excavating some of the moral work and the assumptions mobilized in the debate about streaming, copyright, access and revenue.

Margie Borschke explores MP3 blogs and the romantic claims and ideals of authenticity that have accompanied the development and mass uptake of the Internet as a location for public, and yet personal, music curation. Playing a role in the success of some artists, some bloggers have been acknowledged and courted by music labels. On the other hand, there is a strong component of anti–commercialism in how music is shared through MP3 blogs. In considering these issues, Borschke elaborates upon what she calls the ‘aesthetic dimensions’ of piracy practices.

Raphaël Nowak looks at issues of contemporary forms of music consumption, and interrogates the ways in which the materiality of music technologies comes into play when consuming recorded music. Indeed, he notes that literature on listening often neglects the input of the music technologies used to access music. He then proceeds to offer two sociological framings of individuals’ interactions with music technologies — through their affordances, and within the moment of material interactions.

On the basis of extensive fieldwork in Port–Vila, Vanuatu’s capital, Monika Stern shows how musical exchange is not reducible to a commodity relationship in locations where music, along with other goods which are highly significant in cultural terms, represents and articulates delicate webs of social relationships: its movement (digital or otherwise) is embedded in complex systems of social exchange. She describes how mobile telephony, in the absence of a robust electricity network for cable Internet delivery, has impacted on and extended longstanding traditional circuits of musical transmission, through the use of mobile phone memory cards as storage media for digital music file transfer. Vanuatu’s commitment to intellectual property, facing administrative and financial challenges in implementation, appears to run counter to and feel incongruous for local practice. Legal and technological infrastructures thus interact in unpredictable (and often untenably contradictory) ways with customary practices of musical transmission.

Also drawing on fieldwork immersion, here with the Verdurada straight edge collective in São Paulo, Jhessica Reia describes the role access to digital music and online distribution channels play for this local punk scene, where a fundamental ideal of scene autonomy and a fierce commitment to a participatory DIY culture are key guiding values. Reia’s research highlights how digital distribution and access to online channels of communication foster and facilitate the articulation of the straight edge subculture and ethos both locally and internationally. At the same time, the ideal of autonomy is articulated in highly specific ways with respect to online “piracy” (where there is a moral imperative to support the scene financially), at the same time that it seems to be belied by an instrumental approach to the massive corporate actors who dominate “free” access (YouTube, MySpace and so on). As with Stern’s paper, Reia shows how online distribution intersects with local perspectives on music exchange, and local understandings of the appropriate role for market involvement in music within a particular cultural context.

Haftor Medbøe and José Dias then look at how the conventions of jazz have evolved over time, and interrogate the transformations that the genre has seen in the digital age. As jazz practitioners, they provide an insider perspective into how jazz musicians have adapted to a decentralized and often precarious and unpredictable culture of music dissemination. Medbøe and Dias go on to discuss whether these changes are synonymous with the rise of democratic access to jazz music, or to a culture of mediocrity, and explore various options that jazz musicians have explored to promote their work in the digital age.

In the final paper in the edition, Stéphanie Khoury and Joséphine Simonnot discuss the important work being conducted in the digitization of the CNRS–Musée de l’Homme ethnomusicology archive in Paris. Here, the complex ethical issues around the social and cultural implications of the ethnomusicological archive, understood broadly in the context of the anthropological and colonial encounter, come to be articulated in the shape of the open-access, open-source digital museum, and the impetus, often associated with the digital humanities, toward large international collaborations between such museums. At the Musée de l’Homme, a sophisticated classificatory system for audio files and associated metadata, alongside a permissions system for users with tiered access levels, simultaneously navigate and express the intersecting problematics of custodianship, tradition, technology and intellectual property in the audio archive, where that archive is subject to a state injunction to open access. Khoury and Simonnot remind us that the challenges and opportunities so often associated with the advent of Napster and digital music distribution came to unfold along quite distinct trajectories with respect to cultural institutions: ethnomusicological and archival ideals, collaborative database infrastructure design, and the needs of researchers, traditional owners, and funding agencies, present a complex set of issues to steer through. The ideas mobilizing mass file–sharing and “free” music online, like the technology which affords the spread of these ideas and their actualization, have their own distinct lineage and embedded-ness in the institutional and cultural context of the ethnomusicological archive, devoted as it is to the preservation of the common human legacy of recorded music. Analogously, respect for originating communities and sensitivities around particular recordings present distinct moral limits to universal open access as it is sometimes advocated for. Moreover, some of the issues involved here, while novel and seemingly radical to advocates of open access and remix culture (e.g., Vaidhyanathan, 2004: Lessig, 2004), have a long history of debate for ethnomusicology in general and, as Khoury and Simonnot describe, for the Musée de l’Homme in particular.

Taken together, this range of contributions, from both emerging and established scholars with interests in digital music distribution, provides a particular and novel depth of vision, into both developments in digital music in the time since Napster, and the current issues and discussions in the field. The research in the area is vibrant, drawn from a rich variety of disciplinary orientations, and shows especially the crucial and ongoing importance of music online, internationally and across academic communities. End of article


About the authors

Raphaël Nowak is a cultural sociologist and adjunct member of the Griffith Centre for Cultural Research at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.
E–mail: raph [dot] nowak [at] gmail [dot] com

Andrew Whelan is a senior lecturer in sociology in the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts at the University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia.
E–mail: awhelan [at] uow [dot] edu [dot] au



We would like to thank Edward J. Valauskas for his enthusiasm for this special issue and for his constant availability, patience and guidance throughout the development of the project. We also thank our contributors, and all the other people involved in helping them and us in the realization of this issue of First Monday. We especially thank the anonymous peer reviewers for their diligence, care, and support.



1. Parsons, 2000, quoted in Coleman, 2004, p. 193.

2. Fanning, 2001, quoted in Coleman, 2004, p. 182.

3. Urry, 2005, p. 3.

4. Star and Griesemer, 1989, p. 393.

5. Strathern, 2004, p. 22.



Eytan Adar and Bernardo A. Huberman, 2000. “Free riding on Gnutella,” First Monday, volume 5, number 10, at http://firstmonday.org/article/view/792/701, accessed 10 September 2014.

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Editorial history

Received 9 September 2014; accepted 10 September 2014.

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“Editorial: A special issue of First Monday on the 15–year anniversary of Napster — Digital music as boundary object by Raphaël Nowak and Andrew Whelan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Editorial: On the 15–year anniversary of Napster — Digital music as boundary object
by Raphaël Nowak and Andrew Whelan.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 10 - 6 October 2014
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i10.5542

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