Fool.com: Does Napster Herald the Dark Ages? [Fool on the Hill] July 24, 2000

FOOL ON THE HILL: An Investment Opinion
Does Napster Herald the Dark Ages?

The Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America are trying to slow down the world to a pace they're comfortable with. These umbrella groups channel the most conservative and reactionary elements of their industries in hysterical, counter-productive, and above all, misguided ways.

By Rob Landley (TMF Oak)
July 24, 2000

Online digital distribution of music in formats like MP3 has been something consumers find very useful. Napster is like a radio station where you can tell it what to play. So what does the president of Time Warner think about it? According to a recent Los Angeles Times article:

"This is a very profound moment historically. This isn't just about a bunch of kids stealing music. It's about an assault on everything that constitutes the cultural expression of our society. If we fail to protect and preserve our intellectual property system, the culture will atrophy. And corporations won't be the only ones hurt. Artists will have no incentive to create. Worst-case scenario: The country will end up in a sort of cultural Dark Ages." (Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2000: "Music Giants Miss a Beat on the Web")

Translation: If we can't make a profit, artists everywhere will stop being creative. As far as I can tell, he actually believes that.

Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life. Mozart was composing at age six, before money could possibly be an issue in his life. The "starving artist" is so true it's a cliche, yet art schools enroll classes every year and untrained artists doodle in their sketchbooks every day.

The Web has allowed more creative expression than ever before. For as little as $10/month, voices that never would have found an audience can achieve instantaneous international distribution. Individuals publishing good content can sometimes make a modest living doing so simply because the costs of doing business are so low, but money cannot be the reason they start because initially it makes NO money. They must do it because they like to do it.

Even those who dream of making a full-time living doing what they love accept that they will usually be taking a pay cut from the level of income their day jobs provide.

Look at online comic strips. I read a dozen each day, including www.sluggy.com, www.userfriendly.org/static, www.herdthinners.com, www.gpf-comics.com, www.ozyandmillie.com, www.nukees.com, www.dilbert.com, www.doonesbury/dailydose, www.clanofthecats.com, and www.waitingforbob.com.

All of these began with people who just liked to draw, expressing themselves as a sideline to their day job, often in a student newspaper while at college studying something else. Some became syndicated in newspapers. Some developed enough Web traffic after a year or so that their creators could add advertising to the page. Some put together strip collections in a book. (Which people buy, even though all the strips are available online!)

But taking a second job and investing the money would be a more efficient use of their time, from a financial standpoint. It took Scott Adams of Dilbert and Illiad of User Friendly years of spectacular success with their strips to quit their day jobs. The majority of the comics I just listed (and the hundreds if not thousands of others on the Web) are still just the hobbies of their creators.

The same goes for people running small online radio stations like www.thelinuxshow.com. I've met the guy doing that, last I checked his day job was working at an ISP. Again, if you're lucky, you get to earn enough (via advertising perhaps) to do it full time without having to work a second job to pay for food and rent.

But there are far easier ways to get rich. And until you can at least break even at it, you do it as a part-time hobby when you get home from whatever pays the bills. This has been true of student-run college radio stations for years, the online aspect just lowers the barriers to entry. Most talk show hosts even at commercial radio stations make only modest salaries; they do it because it's a career they enjoy.

As for print, everyone's heard of the editor's nemesis: the slush pile. Unsolicited manuscripts. THOUSANDS of them, with more arriving every day, even though authors know that a first time author is only likely to make around five to eight thousand dollars from their first book, and that's assuming it gets published and sells out its entire print run. Per hour, an author would make more bagging groceries, yet people continue to be compelled to write. Just look at the Fool's message boards to see how many people have something to say and are willing to say it for free.

(On a side note, Tom Gardner recruited me to write for the Fool from the message boards back when the Rule Maker portfolio was first launched. I was happy to do it, and it took me five months to bother to send in my first invoice. They've significantly upped the amount they pay me since then, and it's still a fraction of what I make per hour as a computer programmer. I do this because I enjoy it.)

People who dream only of financial rewards are NEVER the ones to spend years honing their craft in obscurity and become successful. It just doesn't work that way. You practice playing the guitar every chance you get because you like the music. You write books and magazine articles because you have something to say. You draw because you want to. If all you dream of is money, you become an accountant, stockbroker, or an investment banker.

The New York Times recently had an article about how musicians are using the Web to find an audience and earn enough to afford to do what they love full time. They don't have to become millionaires if they enjoy what they do.

A recent article on CNET highlighted a study showing that Napster users actually spend more money buying music. The Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA's) fight against online music distribution is a bit like fighting against radio airplay. The last thing they want is their customers actually listening to music and possibly finding stuff they like!

What really annoys intellectual property distributors like this is that fans can now pay the artists directly. The author of a book series I like just e-mailed a mailing list of his fans (me included) that we can buy his newest book straight from his website (www.daimbert.com). Currently Napster users are spending more buying records from record companies. Record companies are trying very hard to make sure that these people switch to paying the artists directly.

The July 17 Los Angeles Times article (which, unfortunately, is no longer available on their website, for free at least) had a quote from the guy in charge of record label Seagram's, which I'd like to end on:

"Let me tell you what else is in trouble here: the Internet. In the end, the Internet itself will not be able to survive if it becomes a haven for illegal activity. Copyrights must be protected online."

You can just see it can't you? "That newfangled Internet, it's just a fad, it doesn't threaten U.S, we were here first!" It's similar to the way the EMI executive the Times interviewed had never heard of Napster before he was introduced to it by his 11-year-old son. Guys? You're obsolete, irrelevant, and unnecessary. Either change with the times, or retire already!

- Oak

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