Music Sharing and Its Impact on the Industry Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Music Sharing and Its Impact on the Industry

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It has been over 20 years since the music world had its punk rock revolution and as the 20th Century drew to a close, the music industry found its new enemy - the Internet. But how much of this is media hype or corporate domination? How much does it really harm the world of music?

What is Music Sharing?

Music sharing is, put simply, sharing music with other people. It can be as simple as lending someone your favourite CD. However, music sharing became particularly popular (and likewise controversial) with the advent of MP3 compression and widespread use of the Internet.

MP3 compression is a technology invented in the late 1990s that allows its users to dramatically reduce the size1 of digital music (such as that on a CD). Small enough, people discovered, to be transmitted over the Internet relatively quickly.

A Brief History of Music Sharing on the Internet

Towards the end of the 1990s it was commonplace to find MP3 files of popular music on ftp servers2, the alt.binaries Usenet newsgroups3 and websites. Soon the owners of these sites found themselves getting into trouble for hosting copyright material, and it soon looked like music sharing over the Internet had met its demise.

In desperation for a new way to be able to share music, the Internet's users turned to the file transfer capabilities of chat protocols such as IRC and Mirabilis's ICQ for sharing. It wasn't long before someone realised that there was an opportunity for software dedicated to doing this...

In 1999, a university programmer4 called Shawn Fanning developed the first application designed specifically to share music over the Internet - Napster was born. Suddenly anyone with an ounce of computer literacy could quickly share their entire music collection with the rest of the Napster community. The system allowed users to register their music collection with Napster's server, and then search a huge catalogue of other people's music and download it straight off their computers without the need for intermediate hosting.

Napster met with a lot of negative press, largely spurred by arguments with US rock band Metallica but, as they say, any publicity is good publicity. Before long, Napster was a worldwide phenomenon and similar projects began to spring up all over the place (AudioGalaxy and Gnutella are notable examples). Numerous court cases were brought against Napster and, although initial efforts to change the way it worked (charging users to download copyright material and putting blocks on certain songs are ideas that were raised) held it together for some time, eventually Napster met its demise. AudioGalaxy followed suit.

However, this was not the end for Internet music sharing. The Gnutella project, which was initially started by Nullsoft but forced into an early grave by parent company AOL, was carried on by programmers in the open source community5 who saw potential in a protocol-only system, similar to IRC or the http protocol that the web is built on, that could work with any client software that was written for it, and had no need for a central server to store the files on. This technology became known as peer-to-peer (P2P) technology, and many other projects started up, either utilising the Gnutella network technology (eg Limewire, Bearshare) or inventing P2P technology of their own (eg Morpheus, KaZaA).

At the time of writing, three years into the new millennium, P2P technology continues to run. Because the software has no information on any servers, only on the nodes (clients' machines) themselves, there is nothing to shut down as there was with Napster - even if the copyright lawyers could find a law that P2P breaches.

So Why Does the Music Industry Have a Problem with MP3 Sharing?

The band Metallica pioneered the battle between the music industry and MP3 sharing, claiming that fans who shared studio recordings of Metallica's music were 'stealing' the music from the band. They are, of course, referring to intellectual property theft (IPT) - the use of something that the band claim copyright for without paying royalties to them6.

With the increased usage of music sharing programs, there is no doubt that a great deal of IPT takes place, as thousands of hours' worth of music are transferred between computers every single day. These thousands of hours of music are being transferred for free, and the artists and record companies make no money out of the sharing.

If you look at it the way the record companies portray it, the Internet MP3 sharing craze is costing them and their artists thousands and thousands of pounds. These thousands and thousands of pounds could be used to pay for more recording equipment, publicity or even signing new bands.

Also, IPT is a crime in most countries, and allowing people to commit such a crime is setting a bad example. The Recording Industry Association of America is the leading governing body responsible for stamping out IPT within the music industry in the United States, where it happens most frequently.

The industry also worries about the use of MP3 distribution for easy replication of entire CD albums. Using the Internet, a user can download the whole of an album, record it onto a CD, and even print off a cover image to make the CD feel even more real. The industry makes no money out of an album which has been copied, so it is a business loss for them.

Some record companies have taken steps to attempt to prevent the act of ripping7 tracks from CD albums in the first place, by copy-protecting their discs. For example, record giant Sony developed a type of disc-protection called key2audio - discs protected by the key2audio system were compatible with most CD-players, but had a different error-checking section (so were not strictly CDs) which made them unable to play in most commercial CD-ROM drives, initially making ripping difficult. However, numerous cases of the key2audio discs damaging computers and also cases of professional rippers 'fooling' the computers into accepting the protected discs forced Sony to update the technology. See the key2audio website for more information on this technology.

If Music Sharing is a Crime, Why is There Any Argument For it?

A lot of music lovers have united under the same banner - the 'I buy enough music' banner. The idea here is that most music lovers will buy music on CD (or MiniDisc or whatever) regularly anyway, either because they want to support the music industry, or simply because they enjoy buying the CDs with all their bells and whistles - the case, the artwork, the lyrics sheet and so on. These music-lovers prefer to use the Internet to either get hold of music that they otherwise would not pay money for, or to try new music out - most people will not buy music purely on someone else's recommendation, but if they have heard one or two tracks, they may be convinced to buy the album. The Internet can be thought of as an 'infinite jukebox' in this way.

Other people argue that they use Internet music sharing legally. Most new artists, and many well known artists, are more than happy to have their music bounded around the Internet, as it helps them to get more recognition and perhaps gain a few fans who would have missed out, had the Internet not have distributed their music for them. If neither the artist nor the record producer claims copyright for the song, then there is no IPT issue with passing it around the Internet and it is perfectly legal. Websites such as Peoplesound were set up with this legitimate distribution of MP3 in mind, and most P2P developers argue that this was the intended purpose of their software.

Is There any Good that Can Come Out of this 'Revolution'?

Of course, with any revolution, there is always a downside and an upside. Many of the artists, particularly small ones but also rock giants such as Radiohead, are very much in favour of music sharing as it gets their music heard by people who otherwise would miss out.

We have just finished a tour, we played in Barcelona, the next day the entire performance was up on Napster and three weeks later, when we got to play in Israel, the audience knew the words to all the new songs and it was wonderful.
- Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood, BBC Newsnight (27 July 2000)

Smaller unsigned artists love to see their music distributed across the Internet. The more people that listen to it, the more fans they gain, and the more likely they are to become signed.

Some bands take this to extremes. American pop-punkers The Offspring put their whole album Conspiracy of One on the web for fans to download, along with the video to the single 'Original Prankster', against their record company's wishes.

There is also an argument that music sharing actually helps the industry. This article from BBCi News describes how giving away a few songs can radically increase CD sales and claims 'analysts are predicting [mp3] will more than double the value of the music industry from £25bn to £62bn'.


As you can see, the Internet music sharing craze has certainly been a revolution. There are plenty of arguments for and against this technology, but one thing is for sure - the battle is not over yet. You can expect music sharing technology to be around for some time yet.

1Here size refers to the amount of space such music would occupy on a storage medium such as a CD or a hard drive.2An ftp server is a computer that has opened part of its hard drive to the Internet so people can upload files to (and download files from) it.3alt.binaries groups are discussion groups where users are permitted to post messages with attached files.4Diehard programmers often prefer the term 'hacker', but there is some ambiguity in its definition (see Hackers and Crackers for details).5Find out more about the Open Source community at speaking, the legal issue here is 'copyright infringement' - IPT is a broader topic, but the media prefer the term because it is easier to understand the problems with it.7'Ripping' is the act of converting a track from a CD into a computer file format, such as MP3.

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