It would be difficult to find an author more qualified than John Alderman to write a book about music on the Internet. The former culture editor for Wired magazine has been deep in the online music trenches when most of us were still mastering the intricacies of email. But Alderman’s new book omits crucial elements of online music’s tumultuous history for one simple reason: Some of the most pivotal events in the saga haven’t even happened yet.
Alderman makes an earnest attempt to chronicle the development of technologies like the MP3 music file format and peer-to-peer file sharing through the eyes of several key trailblazers, from tech-savvy college dropouts to a small cadre of visionary record execs who see the potential for the much-heralded “celestial jukebox” of digital music in cyberspace.
That approach is fine, as far as it goes. But Alderman, thwarted by his own old-media approach to content distribution, leaves his readers waiting on the doorstep of a new world, with the sense that this slim 180-page volume could be a 400-page definitive work — with the benefit of five to 10 years’ more hindsight.
Book offers, for example, an engaging account of Napster’s genesis in the Northeastern U. dorm room of Shawn Fanning, its explosion onto the scene as one of the most popular applications in the history of the Net, and the first few battles in its ongoing war with the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
What Alderman missed after going to press was Napster’s dramatic deterioration at the hands of a court injunction, and the emergence of a dozen new file-sharing networks — many of them both more robust and harder to sue — vying to take its place. Absent also are the births of two major-label consortia bent on creating the first-ever industry-backed digital music distribution services.
Even if he had waited a few extra months to include those sea changes, Alderman would likely have failed to capture future developments that not even the Web’s most prescient prognosticators could divine. The author alludes to this dilemma himself in the book’s final chapter, “A Pyrrhic Victory?”
“The Web has only been a serious social force for half a decade, and it’s only now that fast connections are starting to be popularly available,” he writes. “It’s only natural that most of its effects, most of its new ideas have yet to germinate.”
It’s not surprising, then, that some of Alderman’s most compelling stories come from online music’s genesis in the early ’90s, during the rise of seminal music Netcos such as the Internet Underground Music Archive, Liquid Audio, MP3.com and Nullsoft.
He chronicles, for example, the path of Jeff Patterson and Rob Lord, who founded IUMA as an online haven for emerging bands (including Patterson’s outfit the Ugly Mugs) to publicize themselves and offer music to Netizens for download.
Noting that Lord once managed a record store, Alderman observes that “being the final link in the long chain of the music business was an experience that shaped his feeling towards the establishment.”
“Sonic Boom” also hits a high note in connecting the dots between the individual stories of digital music’s early visionaries. Lord, for example, sought out 19-year-old Justin Frankel, inventor of the Winamp music player software and the peer-to-peer network Gnutella. The two put together a company called Nullsoft (after young Frankel asked his parents’ permission), which was eventually sold to America Online for $400 million.
Alderman’s thorough exploration of Napster’s development is somewhat less compelling, albeit partly because the Netco’s exhaustive media exposure (the author cites Sen. Orrin Hatch as saying that “Fanning had been on more magazine covers than anyone since John F. Kennedy”). Still, his account of the explosion in Napster’s popularity, its birth as a corporation, and the start of its protracted legal battle with the RIAA are on target and essential to any telling of the digital music story.
Music on the Internet is a work in progress: It will be virtually impossible for any author to write the definitive work on the subject until some of the amorphous new models on the table begin to take shape. Until then, “Sonic Boom” at least offers an enticing preface for the revolution to come.