Like millions of other Americans, ranging from the pre-tennies of Generation Z to my fellow superannuated old farts, I had, over the last year or so, gotten used to exercising my First Amendment rights (and, yes, a little harmless greed) through that medium of computer exchange known as Napster.
Starting sometime early in 2000 I had been hitting the website with the little ghoulish icon regularly enough to have accommulated a library of some 400 MP3 files Ñ as lush, probably, as anything my ears can hear and ranging from pop to rock to classical to post-modernist whatchamacallit. Trading back and forth with other site-users to download everything from ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears" to Ornette Coleman's "Chronology" to a choral version of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Most of the collection is Golden Oldies, from Rocket 88 (by Ike Turner and
by an early-bird Bill Haley, all the way up to some latter-day rave mixes. LaVern Baker's in there; so is Lotte Lenya. So is the gospel singer James Carr.
I had resigned myself to abdicating from this paradaisical Nirvana (yep, got them in there, too) when I learned, a month or two back, that Napster and its Generation Y founder and the populist corporation that grown up around the file-trading phenomenom had been dealt what seemed a decisive blow by a court decision holding them in violation of music copyrights and requiring Napster to filter out no less than a million selections. (The bona fides of the suit can best be judged by the fact that it was initially brought by the bad boys of Metallica, those supposed scourges of the bougeoisie, who now chose to operate as the last bastion of privilege.)
In practice, this meant that one could not go to the Napster well, type in "Elvis" or "the Beatles" or any well-known latter-day musical act and draw back anything at all. Ditto with the best-known musical tracks (you can access files that way, too, of course). Where once the responses had been teeming, and for any given selection one could pick and choose between line speeds (Cable, DSL, T1, 56K, etc.) and ping and nitrate options (whatever the hell those
were), now one got back Zilch. De Nada. Nothing. Talk about a message in a bottle!
The number of fellow users shrank from the million or so who used to be on line at any given time (as the little Napster box in the upper-left-hand corner of your computer would proudly tell you) to a few scattered thousands. And the files made available were correspondingly truncated in dimension. It was like marching home with Napoleon from Russia. Where'd everybody go
But the Emperor lives, clothed in new hope, and sure to attract new legions. Here's what I discovered this week, quite by accident, as I went looking, in defiance of all logic, for "The Sultans of Swing" by Dire Straits. No luck, this is a major-label act, after all. But then, on an impulse, I typed in "Dire" by itself. Bingo! I got back "The Sultins of Swing" by someone listed as "Dire Straights". And other selections by "dire strait." And "Dire Striaghts" and "dire
striats." And various other permutations-- virtually enough to account for the group's canon. I also got, along with some French selections-- "dire" being a verb in that language-- two versions of "Dire Maker" (sic) by Led Zeplin (sic).
I soon realized that, among the quarter million or so files out there (the number had, strangely enough, been mounting upward in recent days) were, very likely, some other treasures to be had via someone's misspelling of the correct file names. And, sure enough, answers began coming back to queries in the names of (one had to experiment to get the right combinations) "beetle" and "rolingstone" and "Madon" and "Temtations" and "Van Morison" and the inevitable "Bob Dillon." And, my post-toddler daughters will be keen to know, "Brithney" (a name that showed up in numerous other variants), "Agulera" (ditto), and"Nsinc" (ditto). One got results from even so subtle an adjustment as "Back Street Boys."
I went after the most shielded name of all: Elvis. No luck until I somehow hit upon the expedient of "Elvise Prestley." Bingo! By that time I realized that nobody was a bad enough speller to be making all the "errors" I was encountering. All these shadings had to be purposeful adjustments. Ventures in code to escape the censor. Acts of conspiracy. Evidently only the correctly spelled names and selections of major-label artists are filtered out. For a sensor (or censor) to be exact enough to catch all the variants imaginable (and guessable) would be to wander so far over into the vale of free expression as to be patently unconstituional. Besides being mechanically impossible.
And what was to prevent little hip 'zines to spring up expressly for Napster traders, that would suggest a Code Name du Jour for any given artist? This month users might be asked to disguise their "Elvis Presley" files via the name "Zach X." Next month "Droit de Seigneur." And so on. Legalized suppression would become virtually impossible. The genie would be back out of the bottle. Napster, he innocent little venture started as a lark by a teenager in 1999 might escape its cage and become a fully-fledged eagle again. Soaring, free, and triumphant, after all. The music industry's minions conjured up the specter of a conspiracy? Well, they got one.
Count me in as a conspirator. You, too. Take my word for it. You can find anyone and anything you're looking for. I'm sure even Metallica, though I can't be bothered to go looking for that.
(Jackson Baker KICKS BACK whenever the mood strikes on whatever topic interests him. In other words, watch this space