Sunday, June 04, 2000

Metallica-Napster flap is like a broken record

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For anyone familiar with home-recording technology over the past 25 years, the current Metallica-Napster flap is the same old song.

        Back in the '70s and early '80s, the record industry was singing the blues about revenues lost to cassette tapes and home recording. They wanted special taxes, legislation, stricter copyright enforcement.

        That proved a false alarm. The fact then and the fact now is that the people who bother with Napster or home recording of any kind are active music consumers. They're the ones who care enough to buy concert tickets, T-shirts and CDs.

        Like everything else in pop music, that audience's tastes will change, then change again. That's because music remains an American teen's rite of passage.

        One thing for sure, the Napster explosion will hurl shrapnel throughout the music industry. Perhaps its deepest effect will be the death of the long-suffering album.

        Today's young music lovers are going after specific songs, not bothering with the rest of the CD. Napster and other music sites allow them to download the songs they want, eliminating the need to buy the entire album. This is the record industry's worst nightmare.         The “album” has been around since the '30s, when record companies bound a few 78 RPM recordings between hard covers. It wasn't until the arrival of the LP in 1947 that recordings were no longer restricted by the three-minute limitation of 78s.

        That was great for classical music and jazz, but in pop, short, songs were still the rule.

        Rock 'n' roll continued that trend — the new teen-age market devoured its music on cheap 45 RPM discs. LPs were usually just a few hits padded with filler. Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Coasters — these men's careers were built one 45 RPM single at a time. The same held for the teen-idol craze of the early '60s, when Fabian and his wannabes ruled the hit parade.

        Then along came the Beatles, and suddenly rock 'n' roll was in the LP business. Other artists followed the Fab Four's lead, creating concept albums, rock operas, rock symphonies and various other lengthy works, taking full advantage of LPs' ability to pack 20 minutes of music on one side of vinyl.

        Graphic artists got into the act, and LP covers became 12-inch square canvases for such memorable images as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers and Santana's Abraxas.

        When CDs came on the scene in the early '80s, album art was the first casualty. A five-inch square had considerably less impact than its 12-inch predecessor. The tradeoff was clearer sound and the CD's ability to offer almost a half hour more music without having to turn over the disc. Artists could still conceive of CDs as “albums” and create concepts such as Radiohead's 1997 disc, OK Computer.

        Then came the pop craze at the end of the '90s. Boy bands and teen queens made records the old-fashioned way, circa 1961. Along with a few hits, 'NSync, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera give fans lots of filler.

        So, just as teens 40 years ago collected anonymous 45s, today's teens keep their portable MP3 players packed with their favorite songs.

        Eventually, the recording industry will figure a way to get them to pay for that music, just as they did with rappers and R&B acts “sampling” older records.

        But the result will be a different way of conceptualizing the music and the end of records as artifacts of teen culture. For anyone who believes music should be more than just a catchy hit tune, that's a genuine loss.

Name that tune - Napster's got it
-     Metallica-Napster flap is like a broken record
    My introduction to Napster
    Napster's busy year
    What you need

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