meIt’s 6 PM on a weekday in 2002. I sit back in a desk chair and tap my big toe on the big round power button on the family computer. It sounds like the return of a manual typewriter. There are several minutes of buzzing and clicking noises as Windows XP starts up, bathing my 13-year-old face in its harsh blue glow. Then another minute of what sounds like Wall-E is being fed through a meat grinder while I connect to the Internet, preventing my mother from making or receiving phone calls for the next hour. I immediately open Napster and queue downloads of as many horribly compressed songs with incorrect titles as possible and watch them run at 100%. Get Up Kids’ Out of Reach competes with Method Man’s Bring the Pain. Pushing under them, probably: a selection of Slipknot singles, the entire Fiona Apple discography, an indescribable amount of Ween. Also Tom Lehrer reciting the elements over a Gilbert and Sullivan tune, popular at the time for reasons I no longer remember.
Depending on how you look at it, Napster either killed the music industry or liberated it. The peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing program, launched by Boston college students Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker in 1999, allowed users to share audio files stored on their personal hard drive. In theory, this made it useful for accessing, for example, bootleg live recordings or hardcore punk EPs limited to 300 copies on tape. In practice, it saw a peak of 80 million users downloading everything that had ever been released at a rate of 14,000 songs per minute.
Napster wasn’t the only software of its kind: LimeWire, WinMX, Vuze and many others offered the same service, but it was the most high-profile. He became enemy number 1 of the music industry, which had been slow to adapt to digitization. Metallica and Dr Dre were embroiled in heated lawsuits against the software company, along with the US trade body RIAA. Ron Stone of Gold Mountain Entertainment, who had co-managed the likes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, called it “the most insidious website I’ve ever seen”. Public sentiment, however, was with Napster.
Like most teenagers at the time, especially those who grew up without much money, I didn’t think twice about undermining billionaire Lars Ulrich for his share of £10.99 for a copy of Master of Puppet.s. The real hit was taken by the record labels, which is why many artists (some for political reasons, others seeing it as a shrewd PR move to boost their countercultural influence) sided with Napster. Wyclef Jean said he wanted his music to be heard regardless of how, Limp Bizkit announced a Napster-sponsored free tour in the summer of 2000, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D saw Napster as part of a “war” that saw people take back the power of the industry. . In a speech before the Digital Hollywood Online Entertainment Conference in May 2000, Courtney Love asserted that the “real pirates” were “major label recording contracts” that trap artists in a cycle of debt, promotion and lack of property.
It is fair to say that for most users it was not an issue of industry ethics. Napster was loved primarily by teenagers and students with the Internet at their fingertips and a curiosity that far exceeded their financial means. Faced with the option of discovering anything in the world for free, it seemed silly to spend your own money buying a handful of CDs a year based on a single or two you’d heard on MTV.
In the end, the industry won the battle. On September 3, 2002, a court order forced Napster to liquidate its assets and it went out of business. However, he lost the war by a comically large margin. Napster’s popularity ushered in a new ecosystem built on discovery and instant access, an ancestor of the streaming economy we take for granted today. The financial repercussions on the business side of things are obvious, but Napster’s impact on music itself is harder to quantify and arguably much larger. This was the first time that young people were exposed to sounds and subcultures outside their immediate environment and interests, in real time, without leaving home.
As a small-town teenager, I felt like that dog shot into space on Sputnik 2. He was everywhere he shouldn’t be, sticking his nose into everything from basements on Long Island to tower blocks. in West London. No way would I have been wandering around my town in rural Wales listening to rapper Bashy, for example, were it not for P2P sharing. It’s easy to see file sharing as an act of piracy by morons who don’t value music, but there were also plenty of music lovers who felt like they’d been invited to every club, studio, block party, and bedroom in the world.
It is no coincidence that the most experimental periods of modern music have been grouped around the appearance of services that eliminated the barriers of access and, with it, of gender. It’s partly thanks to software like Napster, coupled with the burgeoning social media landscape, that the 2000s charts were a jumble of sounds from Lil Jon to Taking Back Sunday, which in turn informed hybrid sounds. from pop pioneers like Sophie, Grimes and Charli XCX. Likewise, the blogosphere of the late 2000s, a free MP3 culling and shuffling, broke down the lines between indie and big time, leading A-listers like Beyoncé to collaborate with James Blake. SoundCloud greatly facilitated the dominance of rap fused with alternative emo, pop punk, and metal genres, and most of the bedroom pop stars of 2022 wouldn’t be where they are without TikTok. The number of era-defining artists seen online by fans rather than being discovered by record labels has its roots in the P2P era.
Furthermore, the music industry is set to generate $153bn in revenue by 2030 and it now costs £45 to see a mid-tier indie band at Brixton Academy. So it’s hard to feel too guilty about those illicit downloads of Slipknot.