BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: Entertainment: Reviews
Front Page 
UK Politics 
TV and Radio 
New Media 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Friday, 17 August, 2001, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
Sounding out web music
BBC News Online montage of music providers on the internet
The rise of MP3 files, and Napster
By BBC News Online's Alex Webb

To tell the story of how, in the author's words, "technology is reinventing traditional commerce," John Alderman has chosen the highly traditional method of printing words on sheets of wood pulp and binding them between cardboard covers.

It is a reminder of the fact that the revolution promised by the internet never quite seems to arrive - not even for the music business which, despite all the sound and fury about Napster, is still sitting on record CD sales.

But not for much longer, believes Alderman - who chronicles the story of the rise of MP3 files, and Napster with enthusiasm.

It is an interesting story and, in terms of the technology anyway, well told for the general reader.

Legal action

With music, as with the rest of the internet, the action swiftly moved from academics and net enthusiasts into the hands of businessmen and corporations.

Bright young programmers had seen the potential to compress music files and move them around the world instantly, and when the music business realised what was going on it reacted with horror - and legal action.

The late 90s threw up some unlikely protagonists - like Shawn Fanning, who invented Napster as a student, and Metallica, who were the first major band to take Napster to court.

Then the big organisations stepped in - not just the music majors, but bodies like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and others in what quickly became an acronym jungle.

John Alderman
Alderman is culture editor for Wired News
All this is told with relish. But Alderman fails adequately to explain - or, perhaps, understand - the copyright background to the disputes.

For example, it has been the failure to resolve the complexities of music publishing law which has held up the availability of more legitimate music on the net, at least as much as the inertia of record companies.

And while the big record companies are easy to dislike, musicians and composers have had as much reason to fear developments as to welcome them.

In fact, the music majors often contain warring interests - Sony, for example, has an electronics division worth $12bn (8bn) a year and a record division worth $6bn (4bn) a year. They can be reasonably expected to differ on how to deal with the likes of Napster.

All this complexity needs a clear-eyed guide, and Alderman may be too near the action (he is the culture editor for Wired News) - or too partisan - to provide that clarity.

And with the RIAA currently in the legal ascendant over Napster, and the latter trying to create a legitimate, paid-up distribution system, it does start to look like the revolution has been postponed once again.

Talking of the events of the past few years in the book's conclusion, Alderman opines: "No matter what happened to Napster, online music was set to break a stranglehold over distribution and airplay."

Maybe. But right now it all looks a bit optimistic - or pessimistic, depending on where you stand.

Sonic Boom: Napster P2P And The Battle For The Future Of Music by John Alderman (4th estate, 17.99)

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Reviews stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Reviews stories