2001: Kooper on Napster

Read about Napster at Wikipedia

This is a column I wrote for EQ Magazine back in 2001.

I wanna start off by saying I chose the music business back in 1958 to express myself and to make a living. I've shared apartments with rodents (the furry and fleshy kind) in New York City, and I've rented houses in Los Angeles that Ringo moved into when I vacated. It's been a bumpy, crazy ride. I've been cheated out of extremely large sums of money by some of the best and I've learned from them what not to do next time. Very costly lessons they were.

Because this is my life and this is my job. I'm no better or worse than any one of you; I'm probably just older (57) and perhaps a bit warier and a little wiser. I've no Mercedes, or surround sound. I don't go out to parties or restaurants every other night, and when I do venture out, I must admit I'm often dressed in a rather humorous manner. I'm way beyond the point of being a rock star or a name on anyone's lips.

I live comparatively comfortably on the small percentage of royalties I was able to pry out of calculated, evil paws over the years. Those stipends are rightfully mine and represent a lifetime of dedication and nose to the grindstone. In 2001, I'm celebrating my 43rd anniversary of being married to The Music. Okay, let us begin...

Musicians in the limelight have a shelf life of from one to infinity years. The majority fall out of public favor after four or five heady, high-profile years. We can call up a few as examples: The Association, Huey Lewis & The News, Grand Funk Railroad, or The Dave Clark Five. The concept is that you should make and save as much as you can while your window of opportunity is open. In a perfect world, you could have written or recorded one or more songs that are enjoyed way past their original window of success. (this rarely happens). "Time Of The Season," "Daydream," "Henry The Eighth," all have survived their initial runs and continue to earn healthy money for their creators. As you get older, you find that your songs are like your children. They come to look after you, when nobody else will. It's comforting in a way.

Well, discomfort runs rampant in the 21st century. They're putting your children into bondage and preventing them from taking care of you. And their name is Napster.

I've remained stoic and quiet on this subject for quite awhile, but now I must vent and rant or be crushed under a glass-encrusted tire of disrespect. I guess the thing that rankles me the most about Napster and their children is that you have no say in whether they exploit your work or not. No contracts need to be signed. Somebody uploads your song and that's it. No one with a modem and a computer has to buy it ever again. Now if one were in their twenties and in an ambitious, nascent band, they would welcome Napster and their ilk - if only for the free distribution and publicity. I believe Brother Dylan said it best: "When ya ain't got nuthin', ya got nuthin' to lose...."

But as one gets older, promoters won't guarantee you enough money to even take a band out with you on the road. Record companies aren't looking to sign 50-plus-year-olds - they'd rather come up with clever new ways to design elaborate box sets of your catalogue and charge your royalty accounts for their handiwork without permission.

Now my subsidizing income comes from my songwriting royalties. At this point in my career, it doesn't behoove me to have free copies of my music floating around, especially of an audio quality I wouldn't sanction, if consulted. I don't have a new CD coming out or a new tour in the offing that needs promoting. I'm just a meat-and-potatoes musician who still needs to realize an income. If a company comes to me and says they want to license my song for a fee and royalties, then they're contributing to that income. I'm open to something like that plus it's my decision to make. But if some hung-over frat guy is downloading a song I wrote so he can have the proper cool, unique soundtrack to get some nookie later that night, then my rights are being as violated as those of his soon-to-be-arriving date.

At this juncture of my life, I don't fill stadiums and arenas and sell millions of CDs (actually I never did that!). I just wanna live comfortably in my senior years based on the lifetime of work I've put in up to now. Hell...I want my Rock n' Roll Social Security! And Napster and networks like Napster, are literally snatching it out of my pocket in the name of "sharing the music." They are taking in profits on their website through advertising, and now, subsidizing. Whatever happened to "sharing the income"? This two-faced monster wants it both ways.

Now I don't think for a moment that 67,000 people are downloading my songs for free. But if it's allowed to happen a few times, it will geometrically increase until I have a real problem taking care of myself in a few years. That's just not fair. Now I'm not looking for pity or singling myself out. I've spent my life doing what I always dreamed of doing and I was damned lucky. Many of my friends are in a far worse position than I am. They live from one royalty check to the next. It's not pretty and, at their age, their choices are few, if any. Should people in their position be penalized so that other people can have fun on their computers? I think not.

I can't believe that after all these years the law doesn't routinely protect me from something as blatant as this. Suppose you invented a hammer, that was so unique, that it replaced the generic hammer instantly. Suppose you patented and copyrighted that hammer in order to protect your invention. Suppose that an internet company lay in wait and hijacked your shipping trucks and offered your hammers, free to anyone who logged on to their site - worse yet, in order to offer your hammer free, they cut it's quality by ten-fold! How long do you think the law would allow THAT to continue? Well it's the same with Napster except that today music is easier to hijack than hammers.

Once again, I can see the value in this revolution for younger, on-the-make bands. But have I created and played for 43 years to have my income cut off on a cyber-whim? Will my "children" be prevented by kid-napsters from helping me survive in my old age? I shudder to think. Take responsibility for your actions and think before you upload or download. Think of yourself as an honest person and the downloads on Napster as shareware; albeit, crummy-sounding shareware. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Al Kooper

[EQ Editor's Note: As we went to press, an announcement was made regarding an agreement between Napster and BMG. When asked his opinion of this announcement, Al Kooper replied, "The BMG involvement is like sticking a tampon in an already-flooded Holland Tunnel."]