The launch of Ping, Apple’s new Facebook-meets-iTunes service, has once again underlined the somewhat novel idea that people want to chat and interact to a greater degree about the music they like. If it succeeds, it will be because people don’t just want access to music: they want to belong to a music community.
In making predictions, it’s wise to look to the past. The tendency towards community isn’t surprising to anybody who has watched file-sharing evolve over the past decade.
A (very) brief history of file-sharing
The first wave of file-sharing, Napster and its decendents such as Gnutella, was at times a lonely affair: users searched and downloaded music through the central hub with as much social interaction as a simple Google search - i.e. none. You downloaded from a computer - whether there was a person in front of it was irrelevant. There was the option, but not the requirement, of communicating individually with their peers. Some chatted and formed links with those they swapped music with; some didn’t.
As legal obstacles paved the way for bit torrents, where users downloaded from many users simultaneously, the importance of community participation grew drastically. Sites relied on a) the comments of users to protect against “fake” versions of torrents and b) the good will of downloaders to upload their share after download is complete. In a non-participative community the site would be flooded by fake torrents while authentic torrents would be slow to download through lack of uploading.
The necessity of participating in a community of peers had grown and with this, the links and support within the community for a more file-sharing-friendly copyright system. This brings us to where we are now.
With the growth of upload services inspired by yousendit.com the trend amongst file-sharers was at first to have a discussion forum where specific media are requested and yousendit/etc. links posted by other members. This was the high water mark for community interaction in file-sharing in general.
These forums continue to be used for less mainstream types of music, but increasingly, a simple Google search that uses the form [album title] + [downloading service] can reveal pretty much anything currently popular, allowing the end user to bypass any kind of community. As availability has increased, the necessity for participation in a community has plummeted.
Copyright reform and protest
Also based around community is the “Fair Copyright” movement seen here in Canada. Some claimed that the movement was simply driven by “pirates” - or better yet, “radical extremists”, both terms that imply isolated individualism.
While the exact numbers aren’t available, there’s no doubt that some people involved in the movement were also products of a file-sharing community. But that’s the key word: “community”, not isolated individuals. People are, after all, more likely to fight for a community they belong to rather than a service they occasionally use. More so, file-sharers were used to participating in something - being part of a community, even online, is a skill that people need to develop.
Social movements like the “Fair Copyright” movement need a tight community to do the heavy lifting: to figure out tactics, organize events, send invites, etc. If file-sharing had evolved without placing a steadily-increasing emphasis on community, it’s doubtful that people from the file-sharing community would have participated so enthusiastically in the “Fair Copyright” movement.
This is a crucial point for community: just as music buyers can choose to search for music as individuals through iTunes OR turn to Ping’s “community”, file-sharers can now either go through an anonymous search engine or a file-sharing “community”.
If Spotify proves to be the revolution some people claim it will be, and if it fuses both buyers and sharers, what effect will its Facebook functionality have in terms of creating communities? People’s choices, given those options, will tell us a lot about the value of community in their life.
Whether people are paying for their music or not, the conclusion is the same: If people obtain their music by bypassing communities or by simply not creating them, it would weaken the sense of cohesion that has helped in the creation of the “Fair Copyright” movement. This would be a step towards the “taming” of the internet, no doubt to the joy of copyright owners.
Matthew Hiscock is a music lifer, occasional journalist, record label manager and alumni of Concordia University’s School of Community and Public Affairs. You can hear his music here and read his interviews with “bass music” producers here.