Loving and Leaving the Phonograph; or; Napster for Record Romantics. Well-written overview of what Napster means for the way we consume and listen to music. Two points leap out.

First off is the way Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music has in 3 years switched from a little-known compilation made by a notable crank to the touchstone of all that is good, pure, and holy in 20th Century Music. Hanley Bemis’ Napster/Anthology parallel is neat but doesn’t really hold here, given that the secret of the AOAFM‘s aesthetic success is its singular level of organisation, in direct contrast to the genre-baffling sinkholes of the file-sharing community. Also, if you look closely at the Anthology, it’s not all “music by and for the people”: there are utilitarian Church numbers and corporate singing cowboys on there too. And the implication that this music was motivationally pure, an implication that runs through every piece I’ve read on the Anthology, also needs examination. A lot of the musicians were poor people with a talent, a talent they wanted, badly, to make some money off. Had there been the notion of a ‘pop star’ back then, it’s a fair bet that “Dock” Boggs et al. would have liked, eventually, to become one.

Which kinds of leads us to the other point I’d make about the article. A lot of the cultural commentary on Napster has an oddly nostalgic tone to it – here, at last, is a technology that will sweep ‘manufactured’ pop stars away and return primacy to real people playing real music, live. There seems to be some idea that in the golden new Napsterised age everyone will be listening to giggin’ rock and indie groups and all the nasty plastic prefab pop which they currently listen to will be swept away. What these people miss is that Napster and the recording industry are interdependent – Napster requires a fresh stream of corporate product (the new Wallflowers CD! the new Radiohead CD!) to keep its users excited. Shawn Fanning set up the system, as Bemis acknowledges, as a way to swap horrible major-endorsed frat rock, not to lovingly pass around the latest For Carnation bootleg.

It’s true that the way we listen to music is going to change, and radically, and that nobody quite knows how, yet. But the simple fact that the anti-record-industry people haven’t absorbed is this: people buy (or download) the prefab pop stuff mostly because they like it. File-sharing will shift the current absurd imbalance between the shiny top 40 and the gnarly underground, but it won’t reverse it. What is likelier to happen is that both of Bemis’ visions – of a postmodern music-sharing future and one based around multimedia major-label megastars – will come to pass, in parallel.