By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
After a month of requests, I've been offered a last-minute moment with Milt Olin, Napster's new chief operating officer. After a couple of Fanning's e-mailed zingers came out in the discovery phase of the RIAA's suit, Napster's teen wunderkind has been offered sparingly to the press. In one e-mail, quoted with relish in the RIAA's motion for injunction, Fanning explained that users would be reluctant to provide the company personal information or "other sensitive data that might endanger them (especially since they are exchanging pirated music)." Whoops!
Olin enters and quickly establishes himself as a no-bullshit guy. His hair is sandy blond shot through white, and he's of a comfortable weight. He's virtually, perhaps consciously, styleless. He wears oval glasses, a light-blue button-up shirt, dark-blue pants and sensible black shoes. He throws his legs up on a chair and immediately begins to demonstrate a healthy, low-level paranoia: No audiotape is allowed. (Rule No. 1: No permanent record.) He answers my questions like a hostile witness. (Q: "Are you working more on the legal case or toward Napster's future?" A: "That was a compound question. Yes and yes.") He tells me what I should write about. ("The thing you could focus on is, When will an artist break via the Web?") Then he begins to tell me about "first-mover advantage"; I begin to think about how much I'd like a jellybean.
I'm hastily disabused of the notion that Napster is some outsider force. Olin is a music-industry veteran. He was head of business affairs and legal at A&M Records until it was bought by Napster's most vitriolic opponent, Universal, which shuttered the label in brutal fashion in January 1999, putting Olin out of a job. He formerly practiced law at Mitchell, Silberberg and Knupp LLP, the firm prosecuting the RIAA's case. A few months back, Hank Barry -- a friend, Napster's interim CEO and a partner at the venture-capital firm that gave Napster $15 million to play with -- called Olin up and asked him if he had any idea how seriously the music business was keeping an eye on the Internet. Says Olin, "It was like, shit, are you on the pot?" He soon started making the Monday-through-Friday commute to San Mateo from his home in Los Angeles.
RIAA vs. Napster is not a case of one side defending the fort and a band of interlopers charging the gates. The total lack of negotiations between the two sides is one sign that this is a standoff that traces its roots deep into the same old music business. Regardless of outcomes, it will most likely be the same old industry players grabbing at the money earned by artists.
Oh yes -- Olin tells me approximately dick. ("I've been using the Internet since Prodigy, so longer than most of my contemporaries"; "To be honest, I don't even know what patents we have"; "We're first and foremost a community site . . .")
As I leave the office, a series of bleeps emanates from my person. "You didn't just tape this," he says, gazing at me with the anxious look of someone just caught on record. "What's that, a camera bag?" he asks, pointing to the old black satchel I brought into the interview. I open up the bag -- I use it to carry around pens, pads, books and supplies -- and take out my cell phone.
"Oh, I see," he says, gesturing toward the anachronistic-looking bag. "It's just an affectation."
There is nothing in this office that harks back to my memory of records: "rawness, lust, disorder and youth." I envision some vicious contracts.
With protagonists like this, just whom and what do you believe in?
This is a story about music fans, music, and musicians becoming obsessed with the narcissistic glow of objects. It's important that we recognize that it's those three to which we owe our allegiance, not records.
It's easy to blame the degradation of art, or at least the abuse of artists, on the forces of capital. But for the vast majority of the history of the world -- from the grunts of cavemen to the dances, jigs and other social musics found on Harry Smith's Anthology -- music has been about community first and commerce second, if at all. The record business has done its best to invert that.
It's not as if the communities that music thrives in have ceased to exist. In more recent times, this aspect of music has been referred to as "the scene," and it's continued to be a boon to music's creation. In the '60s, look no further than the psychedelic and blues-based rock & roll of San Francisco, or Memphis' intense concentration of R&B and soul; in the '70s, think of the session bands of Muscle Shoals or the arty downtown punk at CBGB in New York; in the '80s, consider hip-hop's birth from the burned-out husk of the Bronx, or indie rock's trailblazing effort at establishing a circuit of grassroots tour stops across the nation; in the '90s, contemplate trailer-park-bred death-metal and thrash or Chicago's inbred, fiercely independent experimental-music scene. When they try to co-opt and sell to existing scenes such as these, the corporations that have been behind so much of our music this century perform something like a service.