Sounding Board

Napster Turns 20: A Eulogy For The First Free-Music File-Sharing Network

For all the institutions, fanbases, and cash-hungry industries that Napster tore apart, it’s easy to forget that the file-sharing service — the preliminary beta service that first launched 6/1/99, 20 years ago tomorrow — brought people together more often than not.

One of my earliest memories as an active music consumer (that is, when not terrifiedly hugging the side of the highway on my bicycle to hit up Tower Records for whatever my 13-year-old self could afford) was giddily downloading songs in my friend Chris’ room in seventh grade. While my family was still stuck in the days of single-line dial-up, he’d been fortunate enough to have his own internet connection directly to his room — a practical nirvana for adolescent boys looking to get in all sorts of trouble during sleepovers.

During these pubescent all-nighters, our main web-surfing interest was illegally downloading music at the über-slow, hours-per-song trickle that internet access circa 2000 afforded. At this age, I could already tell that our hobbies had reached a point of divergence; Chris was far more into sports and frequently teased me for trying and failing to partake in any athletic feat, game, or conversation surrounding the culture of sports itself. As a self-proclaimed “indoor kid” whose idea of after-school fun was thumbing through the latest issue of TV Guide, I was becoming an all-consuming pop-culture fanatic — and music was (and still is) my main focal point of interest.

Along with boys-will-be-boys activities like shirtless wrestling, farting, and eating large quantities of Goldfish during marathon Goldeneye sessions, nü-metal and hip-hop were areas of overlap between the both of us — which explains the myriad time in vain spent trying to find leaked copies of Dr. Dre’s 2001 and Staind’s Break The Cycle that weren’t just incorrectly tagged live bootlegs (why else did we both already own the Family Values Tour VHS?).

The marginalia of our mutual downloading sessions included real-deal instances of music discovery. I distinctly remember arriving at Chris’ house once to find that he’d downloaded a host of songs from Australian rockers Midnight Oil, whom he was in the midst of trying to convince himself to like as he played “I Don’t Want It No More” on repeat for the thousandth time. At this point, I was a burgeoning music listener straddling the lines of nü-metal’s angsty, beta-male heyday, the dog whistle-like whine of early 2000s emo, and the weirder and woolier sounds of indie and “alternative.” (A short time after the transitional pains of entering high school created distance between Chris and I, a bemused Sam Goody employee attempted to help me choose between CDs of Slipknot’s Iowa and Björk’s Vespertine. I chose Iowa, and I still regret it.)

It’s hard to imagine in 2019, but at the turn of the century reading about music that wasn’t clogging TRL and the FM airwaves meant that you had to rely on the words itself — the literal verbal descriptions, or at least the publications publishing the descriptions — to guide you towards a purchasing choice. This meant a lot of trial-and-error that had the potential to upset your adolescent finances, as well as ways of getting lightly creative in suburbia that ranged from hogging the head-lice headphones at the Hot Topic listening station to picking up copies of CMJ at Hollister (don’t judge) for the free CD included with the issue.

Chris’ computer also had a CD burner, so I arrived one night armed with a copy of Alternative Press that had lavished praise on Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR, a coolly-described album from a band I’d never heard a note of at that point. His patience with my download-hogging tendencies was running thin at this point, but I managed to compile a killer mix CD with “Exterminator” and “Swastika Eyes” on it, alongside Blur’s “Coffee & TV,” Ludacris’ “Southern Hospitality,” and Moby’s Gwen Stefani collaboration “Southside” — all songs I wanted to hear on repeat but couldn’t afford paying full sticker price for the CDs they were on.

I eventually packed the mix CD away with me for a family trip alongside a copy of Method Man and Redman’s Blackout!, and even though the CD itself disappeared in my endless accumulation of physical media similar to the way my friendship with Chris disintegrated upon first contact with getting older, the fond memories I have towards both entities are inextricably tied to the file-sharing capabilities that Napster popularized. Napster connected me to new music, but it also connected me to Chris, however temporarily — exactly the type of connections it was arguably built for.

Shawn Fanning developed the software in 1999 to streamline the ability to locate mp3 files (technology that, at that point, was only starting to take hold in the general conscious) on a centralized server in which college students at his would-be alma mater Northeastern could trade music easily; six months later, Napster counted more than 20 million users and would remain virtually unstoppable — the most recognizable faceless face of music piracy — until a court order forced the service in its original, illegal-download-encouraging form to shut down in July of 2001.

Beyond popularizing the concept of music piracy itself, Napster’s first-run heyday also offered an early taste of the noxious cult of personality that’s since swallowed the tech industry whole. Before the Mark Zuckerbergs, Palmer Luckeys, Travis Kalanicks, and (sigh) Elon Musks of the world, there was Fanning — an unassuming college dropout who nonetheless briefly achieved something resembling rock star status. Years after Napster’s initial shutdown, Fanning bizarrely notched a cameo playing himself in the Mark Wahlberg-starring remake of The Italian Job, and it was similarly surreal to tune into the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards and witness TRL host Carson Daly uncomfortably share the stage with Fanning, the latter walking with questionably earned swagger and donning a Metallica T-shirt to poke the legal bear that was the metal icons’ fight against Napster itself.

Metallica weren’t the only major musical act to take action against Napster — Dr. Dre took similar legal action around the time that Metallica filed their own suit, after their Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack cut “I Disappear” leaked weeks before being released — but the recourse they sought hurt their already-ailing relationship with fans for years to come, especially in the face of speculative evidence that illegal downloading could occasionally help album sales. As a result, Lars Ulrich & Co.’s battle against Napster effectively cast the band as a money-hungry Goliath stomping out the cash-poor Davids looking to consume music more cost-effectively in the face of skyrocketing CD prices.

That latter description intentionally reads euphemistic, if only to put a fine point on the fact that many had no real idea how to discuss the fact that much of the peer-to-peer digital revolution kicked off by Napster essentially constituted stealing. “This teenager has developed a technology that has revolutionized the way we all get our music,” Daly stated in his VMAs introduction of Fanning, a statement that both signaled just how widespread Napster’s popularity had become at the time and the extent of which the software had normalized the act of piracy itself.

Even more complicated is tracing Napster’s legacy after its initial shutdown. The company spent much of the last decade and a half attempting to become a legal music subscription service amidst courtroom battles and bankruptcy proceedings. Software company Roxio owned the brand and logos at one point, and Best Buy bought Napster wholesale in 2008 to the tune of $121 million, three years before Napster itself would merge with proto-online music hub Rhapsody. To this day, Napster exists as a marginal streaming service in the shadow of the Spotifys and Apple Musics of the world — blockbuster streaming services that themselves would arguably not exist if Napster’s illicit democratization of file-sharing hadn’t kicked off the eventual flattening of revenue in the music industry.

Perhaps that’s giving Napster too much credit, though. For one, it was far from the sole file-sharing service to exist in its time or afterwards; from Kazaa and LimeWire to SoulSeek and myriad private and publicly operated torrent sites, the file-sharing model Napster introduced was swiftly replicated, improved upon, and eventually nigh-impossible to fully stamp out in the eyes of the law. (This eventual obsolescence by way of ingenuity has since become specific to tech at large; think of how the existence of Grindr predated Tinder’s popularity by three whole years, or how battle-royale breakout Playerunknown’s BattleGrounds was quickly eclipsed by the worldwide sensation that is Fortnite.)

It also seems unfair to lay the overall fate of the music industry as it is today at Napster’s feet. Stephen Witt’s fantastic 2015 book How Music Got Free chronicles not only the early life of the mp3 itself but the life and death of ‘The Scene,’ an IRC-powered black market network of virtual pirates that were often smuggling some of the biggest albums in popular music out of pressing plants weeks or months before release, leaking them onto the internet compulsively and competitively. The pirating powers of ‘The Scene’ itself peaked years after Napster’s heyday and smack dab in the middle of the days of the Pirate Bay, Oink, and other torrent networks that made file-sharing both more complicated and harder to trace than ever before.

Maintaining membership to privately run torrent sites like Oink was practically its own full-time job, with a plethora of ratio-maintaining rules and nitpicky minutiae regarding everything from audio fidelity to approaching the sites’ moderators with technical questions beyond “Can I get unbanned, please?” If the experience of logging onto Spotify or Apple Music seems corporate and utterly impersonal in 2019, file-sharing in the mid-to-late 2000s carried an air of exclusivity not unlike joining a secret society–miles away in attitude from the 1:1 digital connectivity that peer-to-peer services like Napster initially provided.

I can’t imagine the 13-year-old versions of Chris and me sitting around a laptop in 2007 excitedly seeding Japanese psych-rock box sets to keep our ratio up on Oink, nor can I imagine us hunkering down for an all-nighter junk food-and-video games binge while rifling through official Spotify playlists and Apple Music shows. As morally murky and undoubtedly illegal as they were, Napster and its ilk represented possibly the last time in the realm of digital music consumption in which a wide range of would-be consumers forged some sort of connection in the sharing of music itself. If only for a few years, we were all pirates of some sort, a common ground that’s become increasingly rare as digital life has only become more fractured as a whole.