Did Napster Cause The Great Recession?

Shopping in a real life music store today I was struck by how pleasantly anachronistic the whole experience was for me. It got me thinking. Here was a physical place in which money was exchanged for music, the music was carried out with a sense of physical ownership which lent itself to identification, identification which happened over the coming weeks and months as the CD was placed in and out of the tray and music flowed through the listener and was absorbed, in the various ways music is, into the psyche of the listener, in order to flow back out into the world in various acts of subtle and not-so-subtle inspired self-creation.

Wait, what?

If self-creation is the engine of economic growth, and music is the fuel for that engine, the logic is purely syllogistic. Let’s review:

Rise of Napster –> Decline of Music –> Decline of Self-Creation –> Decline of Economy

Now that’s a pretty bold claim, but does anybody here dispute that the rise of Napster caused the decline of the music publishing business? And does anyone here see any reason to dispute the claim that music has throughout history proven the capacity to inspire masses of people to question or alter certain attitudes, beliefs, desires, and tastes? Of course not. Unless you think mass culture in the twenties went unaffected by the introduction of a little thing being played in tiny all-black clubs called Jazz music. And all those parents trying to protect their teens from the corrupting influence of rock and roll in the sixties? They probably just hated the sound of guitar and drums together. No, music has power. It affects the behavior of a society more than almost anything else (drugs, religion and economics excepted). And as such music has been the primary currency of culture throughout the 20th century.

Music can be the fuel for a million tiny individual altered choices. Those little choices: “this pair of shoes over that one,” “this drink over that drink,” all the way on up to “this way of being over that way of being,” these altered choices are the units of self-creation. Now, self-creation can be inspired by many things, but anyone who has ever lived through being a teenager would probably agree that music is as influential as anything in that process.

Weaker music means weaker self-creation. As Jay-Z puts it in “Death of Autotune:”

I know we facing a recession
But the music y’all making going make it the great depression

Maybe the fault isn’t with the lazy Autotuned rappers Jay is so unimpressed with (they are, however, a symptom), but a revolution in listening, identification, inspiration, action, and culture that altered the subtle psychology of music and self.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Did Napster Cause The Great Recession?

  1. ZvS

    Is Jay-Z still rapping? I thought they put him in a home.

  2. Actually, I do dispute that the rise of Napster and its ilk led to the decline of the music business. If the RIAA and its member record labels had got on board initially with digital distribution, I doubt it would ever have been an issue: most people, when capable of purchasing music legally, do so; the vast success of the iTunes Music Store shows this. But instead the RIAA chose for a decade or so to dig in and pretend that digital distribution was simply going to go away.

    • culturewharf

      That’s something I had never considered before, but don’t you think piracy would have emerged in parallel to legal digital distribution even if the RIAA had cooperated in the late 90’s?

      • Of course there would be some “piracy”[1], but there always would and will be. What I was pointing to is that the RIAA created an environment in which even otherwise upstanding people illegally download music because that’s how it’s done, and even inculcated a “we don’t pay for music” ethos in what should be their target market—teens and young adults. Part of it is what I’ve already said about failing to get into digital distribution wholeheartedly (or at all, in some cases), and part of it is not recognizing that $17-$20 for a CD had become an unreasonable price given the ease with which music can be transferred electronically (whether legally or illegally).

        Just so I’m clear: Napster, et al., certainly had something to do with the decline of the music industry, but the major blame, in my opinion, rests on the industry’s own failure to adequately respond to a changed market.

        [1] Really, we should just call it copyright infringement, since that’s what it is.

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