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Off Key: The Ghost of Napster

 by Ben Horowitz
 published on Thursday, February 2, 2006



It's always hard to draw the line between offering criticism and being a self-rightous ass, especially when I find myself driving with someone who listens to pop radio.

So, what's so bad about Top 40 music? For starters, I always thought American culture was based on plurality. You know: the melting pot, freedom of speech and all that jazz. Do you really think that the breadth of culture in our vast nation can be expressed by the handful of musicians currently on the air?

In the earlier part of the 20th century, radio stations were an entirely different animal. Many originated simply to keep farmers informed on weather patterns and predictions. Once it became commercially viable, music found its way to the airwaves, but not in the format we're used to.

Gradually, stations began to play records, trimming their playlists until the "Top 40" format we're familiar with today eventually became dominant. Why? Profit.

As any station manager will tell you, radio is first and foremost a business. For whatever reason, playing a small variety of popular songs results in more listeners. As a result, fewer and fewer forms of musical expression find their way into people's homes. Can a station really be "alternative" when every other "alternative" station plays the same songs? This is fine, if you're a fan of the "pop" sound of your era. Unfortunately, if you don't like Kelly Clarkson, or your idea of country doesn't include Toby Keith, then you're out of luck.

Do you remember the first song you ever downloaded? I don't, but I'm sure it was something embarrassing. In any event, opening that first music file was a great feeling. The rush of adrenaline wasn't because I felt like I was sticking it to "the man," as represented by major labels. No, it was the feeling of being on the verge of something great; an unexplored universe of music and expression was literally at my fingertips.

Of course, Napster fell, and music lovers everywhere mourned. I won't revisit that argument, though I will say that I bought more albums because of Napster than I ever would have without it.

Although a free version of Napster is no longer with us, the promise of music from the Internet remains. Not even counting illegal file-sharing services, like SoulSeek, the number of legally available songs a few clicks away is amazing. Browsing through any record label's Web site or visiting sites like can lead to a discovery of a great new band that might not get radio play.

Some bands manage to break these boundaries and still get on the air. Radiohead, Coldplay and Outkast are all great examples.

And, hey, pop music isn't a bad thing. The only problem is that some of the greatest talent of our generation will fall by the wayside, simply because they haven't networked to make friends in the right places. Or, more likely, they don't write songs that are safe enough for radio stations to take a chance on them.

We have to ask ourselves: Do we want our radio stations to showcase a few bands or do we want to use our airwaves to explore the extreme range of talent within our country? Until stations choose the latter, I'll take my music without commercial breaks.

Local Artists! Drop us a line with a link to your site, or drop your CD off at our office in the basement of the Matthews Center.

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