Napster, Choruss and Leaky Pipes

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW

If you were to re-tell the history of the music industry, you would have to divide it into two parts: Everything that happened before Napster, and everything that's happened since. Napster introduced the idea of free content on the web, and blurred the lines between “sharing” and “stealing”. The shift delivered a massive blow to the tried-and-true methods of the record industry.

It's hard to imagine but this Monday, June 1, marks the ten-year anniversary of Napster's birth. Many blogs and tech sites have used the occasion to look back; from the fall of Napster, to the rise of iTunes; from the birth of bit torrents, to the demise of physical retail. It's an extremely rich and chaotic history once you retrace the steps. If the past decade has shown us anything, it's that consumers are very fickle when it comes to paying for music. The success in monetizing our downloading culture will have to come from new and creative methods.

One idea that is spurring equal amounts of criticism and praise is a concept spearheaded by industry insider, Jim Griffin. His idea is called Choruss, spelled with two esses. Choruss is designed to legitimize file sharing by acquiring a blanket license for the content and incorporating a fee within an Internet service for access to that content. In other words, you can download to your heart's content, without the fear of being sued by the RIAA, because you've agreed to a flat fee up front. The idea is being embraced by major and indie labels alike, and Griffin is holding six different Choruss experiments on college campuses this fall. Each school will design their own financial model, to test different fee structures. It's an extremely logical idea, and one that has a great deal of promise.

The digital age has not only shifted the economics of the record business, it's also shifted time. It's impossible for a noteworthy artist to release an album without copies leaking onto the Internet first.

This week, the Internet was buzzing with unfinished versions of the new Dave Matthews Band album. Last week, the upcoming Wilco album leaked, a full month before the official release date. Wilco quickly scrambled to release their own finished version. No one wants unfinished work to be judged by fans first.

In fact, leaking has become its own star making machine. The new Eminem was leaked before street date, as was Black Eyed Peas, Marilyn Manson, Tori Amos, Franz Ferdinand, Vanessa Williamson, Deerhunter, and the list goes on and on.

Leaking records has become the latest way to build a buzz. And though brick-and-mortar retailers may scoff at the idea that leaking a record early is good news for them, the truth is buzz-worthy records are more likely to sell week after week. Napster inspired music auditioning and ten years later, we haven't stopped.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.