MP-Free or Not? The Napster Wars

by Q

It's always interesting when the stars of popular music testify before Congress. In most cases they are standing up for the environment, individual rights or against censorship. I recall when Joni Mitchell came to give her views on the environment. One of the Congressional Committee members asked if she had spent all the money she had made with her music. Before she could answer he pointed out that although she was born Canadian and things might be a bit less formal up in the frozen north, it seemed improper for her to be wearing torn jeans before their committee. He offered to buy her a new pair! But not all musical superstars get so easily eaten when they swim with the sharks on Capital Hill. Who can forget the 1980's encounter between rocker Frank Zappa and Tipper Gore?

Tipper and some organization whose name escapes me pushed for the hearings to consider what might be done to keep music with "offensive" lyrics away from minors, rate it or ban it for sale in the United States altogether. Their primary musical targets were Rappers and Rap Music. Not surprisingly, they received a lot of support from African American women who were tired of being called hoes, bitses and other things by rap artists. But to keep things on an even racial keel, they also attacked Heavy Metal Bands and bizarre Rockers like Zappa and Ozzy Osbourne. This was their downfall.

Tipper came to the hearings dressed like a Soccer Mom picking up her kids after practice looking to gain sympathy from the huge television audience of other Moms worried about what their kids were listening to. Zappa came dressed like...well...Zappa, sporting black leather, gobs of long black hair and an unshaven face. The big surprise came when the two sides presented their arguments.

As if an Al Gore in training, Tipper read from a prepared statement in a flat monotone voice and seemed unable to make a good argument for censorship other then to say that the music and lyrics were offensive. She allowed others on her team to quote a few of what their side considered to be the offensive lyrics, but somehow the dirty words lost their kick when spoken by people wearing Pollyanna outfits. On the other hand, Zappa spoke passionately, made a good argument against against Government involvement in rating music and won the day. He pointed out instances when regulation was used as a tool of discrimination going back to a time when recordings by many African American Peformers were banned from radio play having been labelled profane. Ozzy managed enough sobriety to appear very lucid and well spoken during a 20/20 interview and several other media shots explaining that he was a performer. If he were censored, would Broadway Shows like La Cage be next?

No matter where you stand on the issue, it was impressive to watch Artists stand up for their freedom of expression. Looking back, one wonders whether we were seeing the real Tippy Gore then, or now. Tipper was a drummer and, I'm told, a good one. She recently played with Bare Naked Ladies at a charity event. Does this mean that Tippy thinks censorship is no longer necessary. Or, has she changed her mind about the whole thing. Or, are nasty bands O.K. with her as long as they help her hubby get elected or raise money for charity? Will the real Tippy Gore please stand up, please stand up?

While the atmosphere in Congress during the Gore-Zappa Wars was pro-Government Regulation of just about everything, today it's just the opposite. Few expected anything to come out of the recent hearings on the regulation of music and intellectual property rights on the internet. After all, just a few years ago everyone was worried about how the sharing and copying of Software would destroy that industry. Instead, the industry initiated copying safeguards and tracked down offenders saving Microsoft and other Software Biggies from having to tell their employees that no one would be able to afford that third Mercedes this year. Of course one could argue that the Government was already on their side with Copyright protections. Still, had the industry not taken part in solving the problem it would remain as big as many had feared it would.

Ever since Napster started helping people to download music files "shared" by internet users, the Recording Industry has put on their war paint. No one was really concerned when Net saavy people traded MP3 music files in a few Chat Rooms or on some Warez sites that often vanished as soon as their appeared. But things changed when started attracting as many as a few million people a day (by some estimates) who came to download music no one was paying for. When the software developed by Napster made it even easier to download music files, they became the primary target of the Recording Industry. But with sales at record high levels, it seemed almost embarassing to watch Recording Bigshots try to cry "foul" at Napster during the hearings. Was this just another shot at getting corporate welfare? Perhaps they were banking on a Government who sends billions of dollars to corporations and foreign nations while kids are starving here at record levels? Hey, get what you can I say!

Napter and tried to side step the copyright issue by explaining that they offer music given to them by Artists trying to get their songs heard. If people happen to use their services to gain access to music that is being copied without the Artist's permission, it's not their fault! This hasn't saved from being ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages already from just one lawsuit. The problem is that and Napster are not the only game in town. Every day new sites and services for downloading MP3s are springing up. The real problem is that the Internet has already turned into a happy place where anything offensive vanishes fast. If the Government joins the censorship party on the Internet, the Internet might just vanish. That would make a lot of very big and successful companies very unhappy and probably shut down their cash flow into the pockets of our elected officials.

As with the Gore-Zappa hearings, things promised to get interesting when the battle was joined by the Artists themselves. The metal rock band Metallica has been at the forefront of the fight against Napster and free music sharing on the Internet. Like the head of Napster, the head of Metallica testified before the Congressional Hearings only to find an extremely cool reception. Again, the Lawmakers seemed to be sending them a clear message which said, "Let the Courts decide first." Is it any surprise that a governing body filled with Lawyers would suggest that the disputing parties fight it out in court? Like many, I tuned in hoping to see the sparks fly between Lars and the Napster guy. But nothing happened? Both sides came dressed nicely and didn't seem at all pissed off! WasssUppp? I expected the Napster people to come looking like Nerds or hippies preaching freedom on the net. I expected Lars to come wearing a tee shirt with something horribly obscene written on it and flash the two fingered goat horns symbol at the cameras. But Napster and Lars may not be that far apart. After all, Metallica has never stopped their fans from videotaping or recording their live shows.

Newer bands like Offspring and Limp Bizkit have sided with Napster. They see music sharing as a way to offer their work to a larger audience and, subsequently, sell more CDs. When the head of Bizkit and Lars of Metallica meet no sparks fly. The Bizkit guy seems to respect Lars as an elder statesman of metal and never seems to say anything bad to him, while still getting his opinion across. Lars spouts off a bit, but never gets down on other bands about Napster. Man, this is crap! What happened to sit ins, hunger strikes and riots?

Some believe that annual pay-per-listen fees stuck on internet access charges or free singles designed to get you to buy the album are a middle ground where all these parties will meet. Who knows? I just wish someone really interesting like Ozzy Osbourne would chime in on the issue. When recently asked about the whole Napster affair during the latest edition of his OzzFest tour, Ozzy mumbled in his usual deep British Accent, "Ah, I don't give a s__t." Too bad. Maybe Emimen will join the party? With Soccer Moms dragging their children to hear him rap a steady stream of filthy lyrics at their kids it seems like Tipper, Zappa (now deceased) and Joni are just out of date. Maybe we need a wild one like him to make things interesting?

While I cheerfully ponder the possibility of Slim Shady tearing up a congressional microphone, my logic reminds me that what this is about is nothing as noble or important as the censorship issue. It's just about money! Well maybe I will just shoot them all a goat's sign with my fingers and put on some Britney Spears.


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