The FezGuys
File Sharing is Fun!, (part 1 of 2)
[ No. 46 - August 2000 ]

By now we've all been deluged with the Big Story of how Napster and other file sharing applications are changing the music distribution landscape. Let's bypass the legal squabbles and get right to the guts of the matter: why is it useful and how does it work? Think of it as a giant, free promotional machine that makes your music available to anyone with an Internet connection. To share your music with others, you'll want a broadband connection of some kind because, even with MP3 compression, music files are big. Napster must be running constantly as files will be traveling back and forth over the network at all times. This would severely tax a mere 56k dialup. (One of the benefits of uploading to a site like IUMA or Riffage: they share your files for you and are always on so you don't have to be.) Nonetheless, if you want to see how the whole thing works for yourself, let's get into it!

What is file sharing? It's the act of swapping files (in this case: music) between users (listeners like you and us) across a network (the Internet). You'll need a computer connected to the Internet. If you have broadband connectivity and leave your computer on, it's easy to have the program running so people can download files even when you aren't there. You also need MP3 files! If you're sharing your own files (which of course you *are* since otherwise you may be breaking the law, *wink-wink*), we trust you have already created them (if you need help, look at <> column #27). Remember to set the ID3 tags since they help Napster identify correct artist and song title. ID3 is one of the ways MP3 files include information about the song you're listening to. Rather than store actual genre names, the ID3 tag stores a number that matches a pre-dictated genre. In your FezGuy's humble opinion, this system is less than perfect since current genres are extremely limiting. Bands (and even songs) often reside within multiple genres and current technologies should easily allow that.

NAPSTER 2.0 BETA 6 (Windows only)

Besides the core file-sharing their application provides, Napster has some web-based features. We'll take a look at those first, and then dive into the application.

Napster - As a Web Utility

In many ways Napster's recently launched "New Artist Program" (NAP) isn't much different from other artist upload sites. This is where you can "find the best up-and-coming musicians by typing a band name in the search box, or browse the list of genres below." Artists can enter themselves in Napster's database, including a short description, latest news, influences, home town, home page and genre (more than one can be listed). Unfortunately the genre listing is limited to what's available in ID3 tags ("Rock/Pop", "Classical", etc). At least Napster lets you assign more than one genre to your band.

To sign up go to <> and click "create profile." The bottom of the application form has plenty of legalese (no doubt influenced by recent lawsuits). It is clearly stated: Napster takes no responsibility for what you make available, you represent you have the rights to share this info and music, no porn links allowed, and, of course, Napster can change the rules any time. After submitting the artist profile form Napster requests (but does not require) you to snail mail (or fax) a copy of their "Declaration" form to help them show the RIAA how Napster is helping artists legally promote their own music. But printing something out, slipping it into an envelope and slapping a stamp on is asking a lot in this day and age. Providing your email address should be sufficient.

Napster's bulletin board system ("Digital Music Forum") has a promising area called "Emerging Artists" to discuss promo and encoding, but turns out to be mostly band name and URL posts. This is a common problem with various web sites' limited attempts to provide community. Without a moderator nothing stays on topic. If Napster had someone posting tips and encouraging on-topic discussion on a regular basis the DMF might actually be a useful resource.

Napster - The Exploded View

After downloading the Napster app (only a minute or two at broadband speeds), it is simply and quickly installed. First we must agree to their lengthy terms and disclaimer. We click "Yes" without reading it (who does?) but are told we "MUST read to the end of the license agreement before we can proceed." We scroll to the end and click through. Too much lengthy legalese, gang. Five bulleted items would be reasonable for people to read and grok. (This applies to all software companies, not just Napster!)

We are then prompted for our connection speed (to be displayed to other users downloading files from our computer). Another prompt to choose a username and password follows and then we're logged into Napster's central server. Napster, being a program designed to share files, does the next obvious thing: it asks if it should search our hard drive for MP3 (or Windows Media) files to share. Since we want to select only a few songs to share, we say "No".

Next, we select the specific folder(s) we wish to share files from. At this point it makes sense to create a folder on our desktop called "Napster Music" so as not confuse ourselves later, but we find there's no easy way to access our desktop folder in Napster's dialog box. Instead, we click our way down to C:\Program Files\Napster\Music. It would be nice if Napster included a "New Directory" option in this dialog box.

Napster then does some networking stuff (which in our case appeared to fail) and then told us if we aren't behind a firewall (we aren't) to ignore the networking stuff it just did. We do. Will it still work? It does. We're greeted with the default start-up screen: some greeting text with a status bar showing our nickname, how many files we're currently sharing (0) and how many files are, at this moment, available on the constantly morphing network (over 485,000 files in nearly 5000 libraries [each library is an individual user], totalling nearly 2 terrabytes in size).

Chat rooms are provided for every available genre, plus you can create your own room if you'd like something more personal. We create and join a "fezguys" channel for fun. Hey look! There we are! No teeming masses of users join us, alas. Conveniently, it's possible to simultaneously be in more than one group. We spend a moment in discussion with others over in the "'70s" group and return to the task at hand.

Our main options are "Chat", "Library", "Search", "Hot List", "Transfer", and (good for them!) "Help".

We want to share some files of our own music, so we go to "Library." We're greeted with a split screen where all files in our library (currently none) will be displayed on the top section while the bottom section offers advanced playlist controls. For some reason we can't drag and drop our MP3s into this area. There isn't an "add items" button, either. We march back to our desktop and copy the files into our C:\Program Files\Napster\Music folder (created earlier). After moving our files over, we right click in the Library window and choose "Refresh Library" and voila!, there are our files. What's more, our status bar now says we have three files available to share.

Having successfully made three files available we verify the system is working by searching for our files on the Napster network. We search. "No Matches" is returned. Accessing the "Help" area illuminates nothing. Perhaps it just takes a while for the network to catch up. This is disconcerting. After a bit of research, we conclude that searches don't check your own local library since you obviously already have the files. Testing with another computer isn't conclusive either. We discover that Napster has multiple servers but those servers are not (yet) connected together. Users searching the network may end up connecting to a server which doesn't have any of the songs they're looking for. Connecting again later (to a different server randomly selected by the app) might work but there are no guarantees. Hopefully Napster will link their servers together very soon. For now an artist cannot reliably tell people: "Go to Napster and search for <bandname>" and be assured their music will be found. The Napster software will, by default, remain running in the background (an icon is displayed in your system tray next to the current time) after you exit the app. This allows people to continue downloading from your libraries. Since we're sharing our own music, this is alright with us. But it's easy to forget and later we may wonder why our connectivity is so slow, not realizing someone is downloading a file. To temporarily disconnect from the server, simply open up Napster and select "File"->"Disconnect."

To search for other music, click the "Search" section and enter an artist name or song name (or portion thereof). You'll receive a list of matches. As would be expected, a lot of music is available that suppliers obviously don't have the rights to. Searching for guitarist Joe Satriani's tune "Borg Sex" found dozens of matches. But searching for songs by the quirky and defunct progrock band "Brand X" resulted in only partial matches of other songs and bands (including James Brown's "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", and, as if on cue, Metallica's track from Mission Impossible which started the recent legal battles). Advanced search options are available. To download a file listed in the search output, simply double-click on it. Note that files are downloaded into your Napster\Music directory and will be available to others by default so move them to another directory if you don't wish to share them (and possibly be a target for the lawyers).

You can use the "Hot List" to keep track of specific users (and files they are sharing). The "Transfer" section shows the status of any files you are downloading as well as anyone who is downloading files from you. The "Help" section has fairly good coverage of different Napster functions, as well as general questions users may knock their heads against. Napster loses points for requiring their software to be removed and re-installed to perform the simple task of changing your nickname.

Napster promises a Macintosh version "soon." Your FezGuys are encouraged by Napster's "New Artist Program" for developing new (and useful) services for musicians (not only the pirates!). However, we feel it appropriate to point out that the same problem that plagues many upload sites is even more of an issue for file-sharing apps. Namely: how do people find your music? People still have to know to search on your band name or song title and that presumes they already know who you are. It's the age-old question... We'll continue looking for technology which addresses this situation. A few years ago there was a brief fad of music recommendation services (like Firefly). Perhaps it's time to resurrect a good idea. can also be of use here.

Next month we'll explain several other file sharing applications (Macster, Gnutella, Scour Exchange) and how they compare to Napster. We won't mince words. We don't know how and our blender is stuck on "frappe."




About the authors:

Jon Luini is a working technophile, a musician (bass player/singer) with full-blown facility and extensive experience on the Web and no free time. He is a co-founder of IUMA and MediaCast, co-creator of Addicted To Noise, and runs an Internet and music consulting and technology company, Chime Interactive (formerly Evolve Internet Solutions). <>

Allen Whitman is a working musician (bass player/singer/producer) with a keen, real-world interest in the practical use of the Web. Music credits include: The Mermen, "Brine-The Antisurf Soundtrack, biL, Deep Field South, Doormouse, Delectric and Drizzoletto. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Wired, EQ, Revolution, Yahoo Internet Life, Prosound News, Surround Professional, Replication News and others. <>

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