Has anyone seen “The Social Network”? If not, here is a very basic synopsis: “The Social Network” tells the story of Facebook from its very beginning as either the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg or, depending on whom you believe, members of a fraternity at Harvard. The story turns around litigation proceedings in which you are introduced to the people behind what has been called a global communication revolution. One person you are introduced to along the way is Sean Parker.
Parker was a very early employee of Napster. He was not, however, its creator as we were led to believe in the film. It could be argued that Napster was the previous revolution to hit the internet. It was the very first widely used file sharing program that allowed peer to peer downloading of files, in particular music files. It brought pirated music from the exchange of mix tape cassettes to a truly global force: The force that appeared to threaten the very core of the music industry. Every illegally downloaded song was seen by the music industry as a missed record sale and it brought every legal force it could muster to bear on Napster. In 2001, Napster was shut down as a peer to peer system due to the fact that it had encouraged copyright infringement. However, the cat was out of the bag and scores of other peer to peer systems popped up in its place. Napster and some of the early systems are still around today in various guises such as eDonkey and Gnutella. They, as well as the others, ran into the same legal issues as Napster and were either closed down entirely or bought over and the brand was used in some similar but legal way.
Many still download illegally from the offspring of these early systems, either through torrents or, more commonly nowadays with the rise in internet speeds, streaming music and video services. These systems are still being shut down as quickly as possible and indeed the individual is the more common target now. Many of us in Germany will know or will have heard about someone who got a big bill for downloading a pop song or a movie clip.
But, how is it that there is new music to download? What happened to the downfall of the record industry that was so loudly declared? When Napster was shut down, dozens of systems sprung up in its place doing the job faster and better. Since 2001, more people have access to the internet than ever before, the download speeds are faster and cheaper than ever before, nowadays no one would think twice about leaving Gigabytes of information downloading over days if not weeks. Surely this should have destined the music industry to a quick death as was predicted with the emergence of Napster.
In one corner you have the record executives seeing each and every download as a lost sale. However, many studies have suggested that illegal downloads have no effect what so ever on record sales and may, in fact, serve to boost them slightly. The record industry has changed for certain but it is flourishing. There was a period when many high-street record stores were forced to close or to change focus. In 2002, 803 million CDs were sold. This marked an 80% drop from 2001. Perhaps illegal downloads had an impact but there are other factors that should be taken into account, such as the rise in popularity of DVDs and the growth of computer game sales as well as the burgeoning legal MP3 download services.
The first study to determine the impact of peer to peer downloading was conducted over 17 weeks in 2002. It monitored the traffic on the peer to peer server comparing it to the sales of almost 700 albums. There were practically no coloration found between the drop in record sales and the illegal downloads. The authors of the report entitled “The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales,” Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf suggested that the people using the service were either “money-poor but time-rich” teens or university students, who would not have the means to buy the music in the first place. Other users were considered to be “samplers,” older people who used the services to download samples, meaning that they downloaded one or two tracks to determine if the record was worth buying. Many other studies since came to a similar conclusion.
Almost a decade later, the industry itself is still going strong. the secret to its success may lie in the early pirates and plunderers of illegal music. We all enjoy download speeds that would not have been dreamt about a decade ago and internet access anywhere and everywhere through a plethora of devices to suit everyone’s needs. This infrastructure is used by the music companies to offer us legal versions of exactly what Napster did. Just you have to pay for it now. This procedure comes along with marketing and advertising, introductions to new bands, movies or services as well as customer and trend data that would have been close to impossible to be collected a decade ago. In my opinion all this is in a large part due to the early illegal downloading of music. Since the young adopters of these services brought it into the public consciousness that this was possible, and not just possible, that is was something that others would be willing to do.
I am sure that mostly everyone has a song or two on their iPod or similar device that is not 100% legal. Especially, if you believe the Microsoft advertising that it would cost $30000 to fill a 120Gb. iPod. Maybe you did not download it yourself but got a copy from a friend or they got it from another friend. So next time you are listening to this song, don’t feel a twinge of guilt, instead consider the possibility that the record companies owe you a free song or two, sit back and enjoy.