Metallica, Napster, and Marx

MetallicaA quite bizarre research paper appears in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Critical Accounting, coincidentally the month the Metallica Guitar Hero pack is released. The paper is entitled: “Structural change in the music industry: a Marxist critique of public statements made by members of Metallica during the lawsuit against Napster”

The research paper touches on the possible fate of the music industry in the wake of file sharing and copyright infringement debacle and how the band is now perceived by old-school fans.

From the outset the researchers, Kieran James of the School of Accounting, Economics & Finance, at the University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba and Christopher Tolliday of the Department of Sociology, at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, take what can only be described as a less than neutral stance in discussing the issues by referring to the “warped logic and the greed” of the music industry’s protagonists. But, let’s take a look at the history before we get our teeth into their work.

The music (and movie) industries are undergoing extremely rapid structural changes that are effectively beyond the control of the companies involved. We have seen the advent of widespread internet connectivity during the late 1990s and the spread of broadband during this decade, the development of portable digital music players and the invention of music compression techniques such as mp3 and the Apple music file formats.

With those technological developments in place and advancing all the time, it was almost inevitable that music lovers the world over would find new ways to do what they have always done with their music – to share it with others.

The big difference is that the “home tape” copied and compiled from vinyl albums and later CDs and spread among a few friends was replaced in the digital era by mass file sharing. This was possible across corporate and academic networks and then across the globe through peer-to-peer systems, such as Napster, Kazaa, Gnutella, Limewire, AudioGalaxy. And, across the hundreds of distributed sites that connect and collect Bit Torrent users and Usenet files. Millions of people can now get access to almost any music, movie or other file entirely for free and depending on set up essentially when they want it.

Obviously, those who would hope to sell those files are up in arms and attempting to prevent their industry hemorrhage into oblivion. Unfortunately, those people who have now grown accustomed to getting their music, movies, and software illicitly or illegally at zero cost are now very reluctant to re-adopt the old model of actually paying for it.

Now, back at the turn of the millennium, Napster was the place to go to access copyright materials for free and share one’s spoils with millions of other users. Some recording artists saw this as trivial and continued to see CD and video sales as never before. Others were a little worried and some thought it was a good thing as it meant their music got heard more widely. Then there was Metallica.

Metallica sued Napster for loss of earnings, ensured that the courts closed the company and essentially thought they had put paid to file sharing forever. Of course, they were wrong, and there is now an even more vast network of file sharing systems across the globe, sharing without the restrictions of copyright control even more music, movies, and software than ever before. And, paradoxically, despite the recession the industry itself is seeing increased profits year on year.

According to James and Tolliday, Metallica, as an entity had always promoted an “existentialist and fraternal worldview”. They say that in the “Napster incident”, the band swapped this for a ” brutal form of Anglo-American market capitalism”. It’s an interesting suggestion. I somehow doubt that the members of the band were swapping anything, they just recognized that sales of their music might collapse and they wouldn’t be able to sustain the rockstar lifestyles to which they had presumably become accustomed.

The researchers add that, “The band is accountable to the [extreme metal music] scene and the scene has decided that Metallica has violated normative scene ethics or, in other words, the scene’s internal social contract.”

But, if the “scene” has vilified Metallica, then one has to wonder how the band still rank in the category of “75-100 million worldwide total album sales” on Wikipedia, alongside other acts including Guns’N’Roses, Kiss, Scorpions and Van Halen. This is well above artists such as Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams, Linkin Park, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Police, Spice Girls and Tupac Shakur who nestle in the 50-75 million category.

Nevertheless, James and Tolliday are probably correct in their assumption that Metallica has lost its scene credibility thanks to the Napster incident among the older, diehard fans of the band’s music. I suspect that they cry all the way to the bank mourning the loss of credibility among the brigade who chants “leather and metal are our uniforms”.

Research Blogging IconKieran James, & Christopher Tolliday (2009). Structural change in the music industry: a Marxist critique of public statements made by members of Metallica during the lawsuit against Napster International Journal of Critical Accounting, 1 (1), 144-176

Author: David Bradley

Freelance science journalist, author of Deceived Wisdom. Photographer and musician.