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After Napster

How the New Technology Will Change Music Itself

By Joab Jackson | Posted 7/12/2000

When I was assigned the task of finding out what the future of music would hold in the digital age, I decided to look back in time--about 2,000 years. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, is hosting an exhibit called Music in the Age of Confucius, which runs through Sept. 17. It focuses on instruments found in China during the time of the seminal Chinese thinker, from 551 to 479 B.C.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a set of 32 cast bronze bells, half of a 64-piece set unearthed in 1977 from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. Each bell is capable of producing not one tone but two (usually a major or minor third apart), depending on what part of the bell the musician tapped. Together, the bells have a range of five octaves. They were part of a full orchestra of instruments that were buried with Yi, presumably to provide him with a soundtrack for the afterlife.

In Yi's time, bronze was the latest technology. Sure, there were drums made of pottery and animal skins, and flutes hollowed from bird's legs. But cast bronze bells must have truly been the shit back then, the Moog synthesizer of their day, their heavy metallic rings providing a dramatic underpinning to whatever sound the rest of Yi's orchestra produced.

In China, bell casting probably began as far back as 1500 B.C., according to the exhibit catalogue, edited by curator Jenny F. So. It apparently took some time for people to come up with the idea of assembling the individual bells into a larger instrument. The book speculates how such an ensemble might have come to be. Bells were probably first used for signaling, to warn of approaching attackers. Some clever soul probably enjoyed the tones, however, and started jamming away. Perhaps someone else noticed that playing a second bel alongside the first created sounds even more pleasing to the ear. From there, music-minded folks probably went about collecting bells that sounded good together. It must have been a short leap to the idea of actually casting a complete set of bells, which led to the notions of musical scales and so on.

However it happened, there was a progression at work, exploiting the latest technologies for uses previously beyond what was then considered possible, a journey into uncharted musical territory. Here in the early 21st century, uncharted musical territory is being opened every day by Napster.

As I write this, my own copy of the program can access 442,000 MP3 files scattered out across the Internet. I can download any one of these songs, an amazing amount of music at my fingertips. This is something to consider--other than major-label bigwigs or especially obsessive music collectors, no one has ever had this many songs at his or her disposal. It's as if all the banks suddenly opened their vaults and said, "Here, take all the money you need."

We're used to smaller quantities of the stuff, and to accessing it in a more fixed state. We travel to the music store to purchase a record or CD with a handful of songs on it. The songs remain on the recording forever. Now all that has changed. Since its debut 11 months ago, Napster has attracted 10 million users, and they are raiding the vaults of the music industry. The whole of pop-music history, or at least the most popular parts thereof, is online, and I suspect that fact has racially changed the way those users listen to music, as it has for me. I used to buy two or three CDs a month; in the past month, I haven't bought any. Instead, I've downloaded 500 songs by all sorts of artists I was curious about but had never heard before.

Of course, the vast majority of these songs are copyrighted, so all this mass copying is arguably illegal. (Though, arguably, not immoral: As computer guru Richard Stallman, one of the pioneers behind the free-software movement, often points out, copyright laws were initially enacted to keep publishers from profiting off an artist's works without paying royalties, not to keep consumers from sharing songs with one another.) Still, with all this music flying back and forth across the globe, I can't help but wonder what proverbial bells we are now pinging away at, and what future orchestras we will create with these new technologies.

One can see this evolution already in some of the home remixes that are starting to appear on Napster. Check it out: Type "vs." in the Napster song-search box. The software will return hundreds of crude home remixes, each made up with two or more popular hits of the day.

Like the old music magazines and compilation albums that paired off the pop stars of the day as if in some boxing match--The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons and the like--these remixes are named for the artists whose tracks are mixed together: "Everlast vs. Limp Bizkit," "Fatboy Slim vs. Steppenwolf." One of the best ones I found is the mistitled "Insane Clown Posse vs. Britney Spears," in which "Baby One More Time" is interlaced with the hook from Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain." In "Fatboy Slim vs. the Rolling Stones--Rockerfaction," a live version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is synched with "The Rockafeller Skank." At its best, this technique produces some wonderful results: Cypress Hill's pot song provides a perfect foil for Britney Spears' pop song; Keith Richards' riff becomes fuel for more than one catchy song. The best of these tracks stay on the playlists of many Napster users, showing up frequently in searches.

The odd thing is, no one seems to take credit for them. They carry no information about who did the remixes, nor are they likely to exist anywhere outside the home computers hooked up to Napster (though "Rockafeller Skank"-ster Fatboy Slim has been playing his own Stones-biting remix live for some time). I caught up with one Napster user, anagnostis1312, via the software's chat function and had to coax out it out of him that he made a few of these tracks. "These songs are very easy to make," he finally told me, after getting over his suspicion that I was a record-company lawyer. "The programs that we have are fantastic!" He tells me he uses Rebirth, a software version of an analog synthesizer.

The music industry probably hates these remixes, for the same reason it hates Napster to begin with. But maybe copyright should be the least of their concerns. These combo tracks say a lot about how digital distribution of music is affecting--and is affected by--the listening habits of those who use it. Apparently, at least some folks online are craving more than one hook at a time. After one hears the Napster remix of "Baby One More Time," the original seems kind of drab, as if there is too much empty space in the song.

It is symptomatic of our desire for ever more stimulation. We used to make mix tapes, when the radio or whole albums didn't have all the songs we wanted to hear. Now even the songs themselves are being customized.

Napster, of course, only hints at the possibilities offered by digital music. Now that they take the form of bits, the recorded versions of songs are a lot more fluid, easy to pass around, compact. To try and figure out where this is headed, I contacted Listen.com, an online directory of more than 60,000 legally sanctioned MP3 files. Here's a company that's banking on the future of digital music; I wanted to find out what it is, exactly, that Listen.com is banking on.

I got Tim Quirk, managing editor for the site and former frontman for the alternative-rock band Too Much Joy. His take on the future of music? "Ten to 15 years out, my best guess will be that everything will be available online, legally or not. That's what a lot of people are working on right now," he says. "It's going to be beautiful for fans."

Quirk foresees a day when there will be a central repository of MP3s. The idea of storing your music at your house or anywhere else will seem antiquated. Quirk says he got this idea from talking with college kids, who fundamentally refer to music with different words and terms than he did at their age. He noticed that they don't speak of their music collections in terms of how many records or CDs they have. For them, it's the sheer volume of gigabytes of music that fills their computer hard drives.

Eventually, Quirk posits, "people are going to become less and less accustomed to listening to physical music on products that they carry with them from place to place. Basically, you'll go online, which will be much easier in the future. You can do it with a little wireless device in the car, handheld thing you take to the beach with you, wherever you go. You don't have to cart around a Discman or CDs anymore. Music will just be in the air."

So what is the upshot of this theoretical celestial jukebox? How could this change the styles of music we listen to today? "Its kind of daunting," Quirk muses. "Once people have instant access to everything, why would they keep listening to the same old crap? I myself am betting on the fact that as people get broader access to more stuff their tastes will start to change. It will be very gradual, but it will be noticeable."

A quick look through MP3.com, a repository of musicians whose work is primarily available through the Internet, shows this is already happening. "It's not all Dave Matthews Band wannabes, Blink 182 wannabes," Quirk says. "There's a whole bunch of people just doing goofy-ass shit for the fun of it because they can. You can find Japanese bluegrass bands, Italian hip-hop acts, old-music ensembles playing instruments that don't exist anymore. It's incredible how much stuff is out there."

Quirk foresees the easy access of digital music bringing on a sort of creative renaissance. "If you really don't care about trying to appeal to the widest cross section of the population possible, you won't have to. You'll be able to make the music that you hear in your head," he says. "And because [of] the niche-marketing power of the Internet, you'll be able to find the five, 10, 20 or 15, or 15,000 people who agree with you. And you won't be beholden to a business cycle either. It's not like you'll have to come up with 10 songs every 18 months. You can post them daily to your Web site. If you don't have 10 good ones, you can wait three or four or five years. People are going to return to their own creative pace."

The Marquis Yi of Zeng was a music fan, no doubt. He had his entire orchestra buried with him. His coffin, also on exhibit at the Smithsonian, is a huge lacquered box painted in an almost psychedelic fashion with, as the accompanying annotation reads, "intertwined birds, reptiles, serpents, and ambiguously human forms [that] fill every inch of the surface. Interspersed among them are images with masklike faces and wispy bodies suggestive of gods, sprits, ghosts, or even humans in altered states of consciousness. The meanings of these images elude us today but the overall impression is one of pulsating energy, where strange, otherworldly beings ebb and flow in constant flux indicative of Marquis's profound belief in a vibrant, spirit-tainted world."

In other words, the Marquis was a head. He felt the connection to the great grooving beyond, the cosmic vibrations of all things. We don't know what kind of music he heard when he was alive, just as we don't know what we'll be hearing in 50 years. But we do know that music was his accompaniment, and that when it adapted itself to the newest technologies the results rocketed off into unknown territory.

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