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Free music for the masses

by Eric Lee

Usually I like to write about how the Internet allows activists to work better at their job of changing the world. But there's another side of the new communications technologies that affects working people in an even more direct way: it can make some things that were previously unaffordable suddenly within range -- or in some cases, free.

There's been a lot of talk lately about Napster -- the online file-sharing software that allowed people to share their CD collections with the world. Napster has basically been shut down by the big record companies which didn't particularly like the idea of the free exchange of recorded music. But the idea of Napster hasn't gone away.

There are already a number of alternatives to Napster software -- the best known is perhaps Gnutella, located at -- but I want to focus on a somewhat lower-tech way for people to get their hands on music for free, or nearly for free. And in a way that's probably even legal.

Let's say you have a CD player at home. You want the latest best-selling CD -- say, for example, the new Beatles compilation, "1". The most expensive thing you can do is go over to your local shop and buy the CD. It's far, far cheaper to go online -- the price of all bestselling CDs at, for example, is only £9.99 each.

Still, ten quid is a lot to shell out for a few songs.

So how can we cut the cost even further? If you own a computer, you're in luck. Two new technologies make owning music so cheap that even young working class people can afford to build up extensive collections.

The first is CD writers. These are devices that you connect to your PC (or install in your PC) that allow you to create CDs. The cost of a blank CD can be as low as 28p. So for the price of that one Beatles collection, you can have 36 CDs. In other words, save over 97% off the discounted price at Amazon, and probably closer to 99% off the list price -- the one you pay in the local shop.

And it can get even cheaper. Napster's file sharing technology wasn't based on sharing actual CDs -- those are simply too large to be easily transported over the net. Instead, everyone was exchanging music files in the compressed MP3 format, which are much smaller than ordinary CD files. You can fit 12 - 13 ordinary CDs on each blank one, once you've compressed to MP3 format. This drops the cost of owning that same Beatles compilation down to about 2p.

Think a collection of, say, 1,000 CDs would do it for you? You can get a CD writer and 100 blank CDs for under £100 (from The software you need to create MP3 files from CDs is free (try, for example, Music Match Jukebox, downloadable from and the software to write (or 'burn') CDs is also going to come free with the drive.

You can buy a portable CD player that also plays MP3 files, and also plug it into your stereo. A selection of these players can be found at -- and some cost only slightly more than US $100.

Don't have a PC? You can buy an entire system, complete with speakers and a CD writer for only a few hundred pounds.

The new technology makes an extensive music collection accessible even to working people. But to make it work, they need the technology I've described above -- and they need to share their music.

This does raise a certain legal issue: the problem with Napster was that by using the software, you were allowing the world to copy from you music collection and the record companies did have a case. But no one ever gets prosecuted for copying their friends' CDs for their own personal use. Just don't try selling them.

Musicians are divided over the MP3 revolution, with some seeing it as threat to their livelihoods while others are themselves offering up their work free of charge on the web. In any event, if you love music, you'll pay to see it performed live.

The implications of all this are not only that working class kids will get much larger music collections without driving their families to bankruptcy, but that they might also get to experiment a bit with music beyond the commercial top 40. The thousands of MP3 sites on the web are showcasing music that record companies would never sell -- as well as making available a whole range of older and more exotic music that you'd never find in the local shop.

It opens up the possibility for working class people to enjoy -- at virtually no cost -- an entire world of culture and music previously closed to them. And it encourages sharing, something socialists should rejoice in.

Arieh Lebowitz has written a rebuttal to this article which can be found here. Readers are invited to add their own comments to this discussion.

This article appeared in the Scottish Socialist Voice -- "the paper that's NOT owned by millionaires".

This document was last modified: Wednesday, 23-Nov-2022 08:33:35 CET

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