Marketers should heed the tune of Napster's revolution

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My vote for Person of the Year--last year and this year, too--goes to Shawn Fanning and his merry band of thieves.

I realize that, in casting my lot with the young inventor of Napster and his 40 million users, I am exalting an avatar of the new economy at the very moment that economy appears to be disintegrating. Indeed, in his influential New York Magazine column, my pal Michael Wolff predicted the complete collapse of the Internet in 2001. Digital business has grown so outre that Time, on the eve of its marriage to America Online, selected President-elect George W. "Ask Dick" Bush as its Person of the Year.

With due respect, I believe that interminable election and its devolution into a chad war underscores the potency of individualism unleashed--a force that is not only symbolized but realized by Napster and its minions. The technology stole popular culture from its overseers and used it as a battering ram to break down a business oligopoly and explode the concept of shelf space. Whatever happens to Napster Inc. in the face of its court battles and its new relationship with Bertelsmann, marketers--good God, all industries--have no choice but to play jujitsu with the power of peer-to-peer.

Before the holidays, I understood Napster intellectually. But I was guided to it emotionally by my friend Rachel. Rachel is 13, and she has been my window onto the future for many years. Faithful readers (Hi, Dad!) will recall it was Rachel who, at the age of 10, turned me on to the Absolut vodka ad-collecting fad. A few weeks ago, I was over at Rachel's place and waxing nostalgic about a song I hadn't heard in a few decades--"I Want to Sing-A," by Al Jolson. She went online to Napster and in a matter of minutes retrieved it for me.

Later, experimenting on my own, I found thousands of tunes and tidbits I thought had been lost to history: Alan Sherman songs, Shelly Berman routines, Italian favorites by Al Martino, French laments by Edith Piaf, Gerry & the Pacemaker b-sides. Drop $400 on a Nomad Jukebox, and you can load 150 hours of these MP3 files on a gizmo no larger than a portable CD player.

Yes, it's theft. But Napster represents something much bigger than lost royalties. It signifies a revolution against cultural imperialism, a revolt of the masses against those who would decree novelty, determine sophistication and dictate taste.

Marketers, this means you.

Face it: We live in a society so dominated by marketing that even "pull" has become a subset of "push." For-hire grass-roots specialists organize political protests; clothing designers retain "downtown" PR counselors to sew their threads into the right clubs; guerrilla marketers have turned the streets of the city into a pop culture Vietnam. In a world where a Broadway theater is named for American Airlines and Bob Dylan will peddle a song to an accounting firm, the concept of "selling out" is little more than the subject of nostalgic reverie, as it is in "Almost Famous," Cameron Crowe's warm take on the '70s. In fact, selling out itself is honored: Consider that Internet securities analysts such as Mary Meeker and Henry Blodgett are still well employed and amply compensated, despite having wildly overmarketed dot-com stocks, in the process selling out investors to their firms' investment-banking interests.

But the public, it appears, isn't so passive after all. Given a choice--as it has been, for the time being, in music--it will take arms against the marketing hegemony. Napster is the peoples' cultural and moral bypass-a method by which the atomized masses can register a protest vote against manipulation. Whatever the outcome of the legal challenges, this cultural revolution can't be reversed, any more than the Supreme Court can make George W. Bush a popularly elected president.

Within this revolution against marketing, though, lies an intriguing opportunity. A little-noticed feature of Napster allows one to peek at the MP3 holdings on other users' computers, enabling a microscopic analysis of taste patterns across the country, and even the world. If that information, which is so much more intricate than any market research study, can be harnessed, then marketing may truly become a science.

Unless, that is, marketers start paying users to populate their hard drives. Until then, at least, Napster roolz.

Copyright January 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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