The Austin Chronicle

Test Drive

By Michael Bertin, May 5, 2000, News

The first thing you notice about Napster is that it ain't Mac friendly. It's a Wintel-only piece of software. The world really Munsoned itself when it made Bill Gates the monopolist and not Steve Jobs, but that's a complaint for another time. For now, I have to go beg my neighbor to let me play with her computer, which I did.

Using a Gateway Pentium II machine with a 56K modem, it took about three minutes to download the software. Not bad. Getting on and registering, however, was a bit more of a pain. It took about 15 minutes to log on because the traffic was so heavy. So for 15 minutes I would hit the button to enter, then wait a minute. The first 15 times I got back a dialogue box saying that I couldn't access the server. Well, like they say, the 16th time is the charm. I finally got it. Registration was a snap, then the main window opened.

Napster's interface is not going to win any design awards. However, it is extremely intuitive and easy to use. Wonderful. There is way too much software where the geeks over-engineered the user interface but forgot that people were actually going to have to use the damn software.

Okay, time to find some songs. If Napster is about providing a place for people to expose their favorite bands to others, then I thought I'd start looking for MP3s from bands that need any exposure they can get.

I type in "Dolly Varden." It's an Americana band out of Chicago. Smart songs, male and female harmonies, great stuff -- no matches. Hmmm ... How about Spoon? They could probably use some hype. For some reason, the Napster search engine returned about 500 Dave Matthews matches, but no actual Spoon songs. Great. It's bad enough that the real world is overpopulated by people with no musical taste. Do they have to dominate the virtual world, too?

What about Harvey Sid Fisher? Zilch. Stuntman? Nothing. Jeez, the status bar on the bottom of the window says there are currently over 660,000 songs available, yet I can't seem to find any. Right about now I'm thinking Napster sucks.

Granted, I had intentionally chosen bands that aren't likely to be there, but bands with ardent fans who might want to pimp them any chance they can get.

Maybe those fans just don't own computers. So I go for a surer thing and type "Guided by Voices." Napster returns about 25 matches. I double-click on "The Official Ironman Rally Song" and roughly eight minutes later I am listening to that very song. All right.

Time to change strategies. I begin looking for my favorite bands. First, the Replacements. The search engine returns dozens of available songs, among them a live version of "Unsatisfied." Fourteen minutes later, I've got the song. Next is Uncle Tupelo. Again, roughly a few dozen available Uncle Tupelo songs come up on the screen for me to choose from. Oooh, oooh, a live version of "We've Been Had." I click to transfer it, then I go to read some Tolstoy because I've got all kinds of time. I'm downloading with a 56K modem and it's being transferred from a user with a 56K modem, only the window indicates that the song is being delivered at about 12K. The transfer is going to take about 45 minutes! Clearly, for maximum Napster enjoyment, you either need patience or you need DSL.

From Uncle Tupelo, logically I go to Wilco. Wilco has about 50 matches, and among them is the score of the night: Wilco doing a live cover of the Replacements' "Color Me Impressed" that segues into a butcher job on "I Wanna Be Sedated." It makes me feel like I'm 18 and drunk again. It's glorious. Now I'm thinking Napster is the greatest fucking invention in the history of mankind.

Over the course of about 90 minutes' time I got the software, logged on, signed up, and downloaded five songs onto the computer's hard drive with a dinky 56K modem. I deleted the GbV song, but left the others. And here's why.

When I did my search for the Replacements, I got some rarities, but more album tracks. Just glancing through what was available, I saw that I could have downloaded for free the entirety of the band's 1985 release Tim, save for the closing track, "Here Comes a Regular." How could doing that not be theft? Paul Westerberg wouldn't get a dime of songwriting royalties, nor would Sire, the label, get anything.

Now, I'm not a big fan of major labels, but Sire did pony up the dough for the band to make that record and shouldn't have copies of it virtually stolen from them. Should they? No. The live recordings that I kept, I can rationalize. They aren't readily available for sale elsewhere. If that makes me a hypocrite, fine. I'm a hypocrite with badass live versions of Jeff Tweedy singing "Color Me Impressed" and "We've Been Had" on his neighbor's computer. As for the bands and the industry that are getting ripped off by Napster ... poor kids, they never saw it comin'.

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