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…And Justice For Us: Metallica v. Napster 20 Years Later

The record industry getting caught napping at the onset of the file-sharing era is one of the most resonant cautionary tales of this young century, and one of the saga’s most notorious battles officially began 20 years ago today: the instance of mutually assured destruction known as Metallica v. Napster, Inc. This was a case, maybe the last of the imperial music-industry era, that made the idea of artists being ripped off by the internet seem like a farce — the grasping desperation of a bloated, millionaire-rockstar establishment representing record company obstinacy in the face of a free-information revolution of the people. It is, with hindsight and without, just a bit more complicated than that.

Let’s jump back to January 17, 1984, a month prior to Metallica hitting Copenhagen’s Sweet Silence Studios to start recording their second album Ride The Lightning for metal indie Megaforce Records. In Sony Corp. Of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. — more colloquially known as the “Betamax case” — the United States Supreme Court ruled five to four that consumers making copies of TV shows to be viewed later didn’t count as copyright infringement. Not only was this a boon for people who wanted to collect reruns of M*A*S*H, it flew in the face of one of the record industry’s favorite warnings: Home Taping Is Killing Music.

Despite its international reach, the British Phonographic Industry’s campaign was doomed for a litany of reasons, not least of all the DIY movement’s simultaneous flourishing outside the record industry. On a broader scale, the genre-transcending tradition of making and trading mixtapes, which actually encouraged deeper and more robust engagement with music that actually boosted sales in the end. At the peak of cassette culture, before file-sharing and affordable CD burners shifted the medium of choice, more releases sold eight figures’ worth of units than at any other point in the history of recorded music.

In 1979, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was considered ubiquitous after selling over 25 million copies, the most of any commercially released album as of 1980. Between that year’s release of AC/DC’s Back In Black and the 1999 drop dates of Santana’s Supernatural, Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time, the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, and Celine Dion’s best-of All The Way… A Decade Of Song, nearly 50 albums were released that would sell 20 million copies or more worldwide, spanning a three-format transition from LPs to cassettes to CDs. Home taping wasn’t killing shit.

One of those eight-figure sellers was Metallica, AKA “The Black Album.” The 1991 30-million-seller completed the band’s ascension from cult thrash heroes skulking outside of the Sunset Strip’s Aqua Net-reinforced ramparts to the world-conquering household name that defined metal itself. Signing with Elektra in 1986 put Metallica on that path, which was by the band’s design. Drummer Lars Ulrich told fanzine Metal Forces in late ’84 that manager Cliff Burnstein, who guided them to Elektra and negotiated their contract with the label, “has this big belief that what we are doing will be the next big thing in heavy metal… and this whole Ratt, Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, Black ‘N Blue thing will get kinda old and die out, and that Metallica will lead the way in a sort of new ‘true metal’ trend… I’m not saying it’s something that’s going to happen overnight, but it could start developing and Metallica could be the front runners of a new branch of heavy metal.”

After 1986’s flawless Elektra debut Master Of Puppets and the ambitious expansions of 1988’s first post-Cliff Burton release …And Justice For All, mainstream success wasn’t just inevitable, it practically felt owed. Grunge might have been credited with killing hair metal, but Metallica beat Nevermind to it by a good six weeks — after more than half a decade’s worth of run-up.

But Metallica was also the beginning of something deeper and more concerning: After dealing with the controversy over new bassist Jason Newsted being buried in the Justice mix and the band finding themselves constantly sparring with new, slickness-enthused producer Bob Rock, the new album’s turn further towards hard rock and away from thrash came across to hardcore fans like a bad early sign of a looming sellout-driven decline. (As memorably noted by the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Gold in anticipation of Metallica’s complete severing from their underground roots, “This is the album in which Metallica compresses its austere sensibility into a form palatable to the millions of people who would rather step into the path of a speeding truck than voluntarily listen to the new one from Cryptic Slaughter.”)

And if there was a story that defined Metallica throughout the remainder of a decade besieged by potential usurpers — second-wave thrashers/redneck aggrocore specialists like Pantera, a nu metal movement spearheaded by pioneers like Korn, an entire flotilla of Norwegian black metal extremists — it was their total inability to get their shit together and keep pace. Nearly five years elapsed between Metallica and 1996’s Load, and if there’s anything that kills a band’s rep worse than taking half a decade to come up with a follow-up to one of the biggest albums of the decade, it’s making that follow-up a deliberate act of self-iconoclasm, a simultaneous return to the band’s simpler hard rock influences and an excuse to use “exploration” to break out of a creative rut. If scrambling to piggyback off its 79-minute overload with the equally-bloated 76-minute Reload the following year wasn’t enough to make this turn towards distilled alt-metal seem like the fading years of an exhausted creative entity, well, good news: They closed out a decade of reputation-scuffing awkwardness with a symphonic album.

But the biggest blow to their reputation came with the new millennium. Early in 2000, radio stations began playing a pre-release demo of the song “I Disappear,” a midtempo butt-rocker slated to appear on the hilariously of-its-time Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack months later. Eventually, the band found out that the demo had been leaked to the internet, and the MP3 file was made easily available — along with the rest of the band’s catalog, and countless other bands’ discographies — on a service called Napster.

At the time, there had been fledgling sites that were starting to normalize the idea of downloading music from the internet — one of them, mp3.com, launched in December 1997 and had become a way for independent musicians to showcase their work, though monetization wouldn’t start for nearly two years — but the record business had no idea how to take advantage of this new delivery system. Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris gave the excuse to Wired in a 2007 interview that “we didn’t know who to hire… I wouldn’t be able to recognize a good technology person — anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me.” So the pirates stepped in.

By late 1999, the emergent filesharing service Napster was the big collision of internet free-for-all accessibility and copyright-enforcing industry concern, an application so popular among college kids that universities started banning it just to save on bandwidth. The popularity of the MP3 format — which was a bit lower-fidelity than CD quality but was a lot quicker to download than hefty, more lossless WAV files — made sure that songs could spread in a certain corner of the pop consciousness almost as fast as they could on the radio. And if that often meant a whole new route for musical discovery, it also stirred up a creators’ rights controversy that made the Home Taping Is Killing Music movement look anarchist by comparison.

The RIAA struck quickly enough: Frank Creighton, the head of the Association’s antipiracy division, had gotten in touch with developer Shawn Fanning and Shawn’s uncle John in an effort to root out some kind of solution to this matter. After early, friendly-seeming overtures, the Fannings then stonewalled Creighton as they got ready to negotiate an infusion of venture-capital cash to Napster. Eventually, Napster boardmember and partner Eileen Richardson promised to hash out the copyright infringement issues and legal details with Creighton, but after a week of not returning his calls, she finally got back to him with a defense: The Betamax case had set a precedent for Napster’s legality. The RIAA figured this argument didn’t hold water, and in December 1999, they filed their copyright-infringement lawsuit against Napster in the San Francisco US District Court. (A more thorough accounting of the matter can be found in Steve Knopper’s essential book on the record industry’s late 20th Century boom and early 21st Century bust, Appetite For Self-Destruction.)

Napster were already starting to look like the sympathetic party in all this before Metallica got involved. From payola to mob ties to usurious contracts and exploitative trend-hopping, record labels were seen at best as necessary evils to get the music to the public, and at worst the poison sapping creative freedom from the livelihoods of thousands. And having a young hacker wiz to defy this corporate machine — at the peak of the dotcom boom and all its attendant Silicon Valley entrepreneur-libertarian hype, no less — only made the record industry look even more like a monolithic monstrosity.

Just over a week before the RIAA filed their initial suit against Napster, the WTO protests in Seattle amplified a coalition-based, largely youth-movement rebellion against corporate interests; odds are that left-leaning and even libertarian college-age people at the time simply saw the Napster battle as a smaller-scale, more personal offshoot of that rebellion against megalithic forces of freedom-strangling capital. Sure, P2P users were technically stealing from artists — but weren’t the labels stealing even more?

Still, there was a problem. Sure, some bands embraced Napster: Radiohead leaked their own tracks from Kid A to Napster in early fall of 2000, which did significantly more to generate interest in the upcoming #1 album than it did to stifle sales. Napster also entered into a partnership with one of the biggest bands of the time to sponsor nearly two dozen free concerts — the band in question being Limp Bizkit. But the angle of artists being denied the profits of their labor still held enough sway that Metallica’s decision to file a suit against Napster and three different universities on April 13, 2000 — the first actual musicians to do so — seemed like a strategic move.

It wasn’t. Almost immediately, backlash against Metallica set in: Hackers hit the band’s website with a message reading “LEAVE NAPSTER ALONE,” and when Lars Ulrich decided to hold a press conference at Napster’s office in San Mateo, California, Napster execs quickly alerted a group of the service’s users to the presence of their #1 enemy, who serenaded the drummer’s appearance with “Fuck you, Lars!” chants. Despite his attempts to assuage users’ concerns — “I really don’t want to sue you… all I want is for artists who want to get paid to get paid” — the damage to Metallica’s rep had been written in granite, especially after they went so far as to create a massive list of 335,435 individual Napster users who they wanted booted from the service for sharing the band’s music.

Ulrich’s testimony to the District Court that July was a last-ditch effort to make Metallica look sympathetic, hinting at the band’s early years “living below the poverty line” and framing the matter as an issue of artists’ rights. His ensuing comparison of Napster users to freebie-hoarding Supermarket Sweep contestants didn’t endear him to the public, and his description of all the time, effort, money, and resources that went into the recording process didn’t engender much sympathy considering what their post-“Black Album” output sounded like.

Still, there was one well-meaning point in his testimony: “Metallica is fortunate enough to make a great living from what it does. Most artists are barely earning a decent wage and need every source of revenue available to scrape by.” It was a point that detractors largely ignored in favor of the “Rich Rock Stars Sue Naive Kids” narrative — boo hoo, James Hetfield might have to drive a used Lamborghini! — but it was the closest that any of these anti-Napster arguments came to holding some actual critical weight.

And then, a month after Ulrich’s testimony, research firm Jupiter Communications confirmed something that many artists suspected and few record execs wanted to admit: Napster users were actually more likely to buy music legitimately than the average consumer. After all, just like those ’80s and ’90s fans swapping mixtapes and recording Top 40 countdowns off the radio, Napster users who were committed enough to go out of their way to seek out and download music were big enough into music already that they still enjoyed seeking it out and buying it in more traditional ways, too. The reason Metallica got ensnared in this whole situation in the first place is because fans were so psyched for a new Metallica song that they managed to facilitate early hype for one of their new, unreleased songs. If they’d left well enough alone, they almost assuredly would’ve benefited in the long run — file-sharing wouldn’t cut into record sales nearly as much as continuing to alienate their fans would.

The bad blood never really dissipated in the aftermath of the suit, even after it was settled the following July. Napster’s future was not only deferred by the suit, but obliterated. The other major trial against them, the RIAA-led A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc., resulted in a March 5, 2001 injunction that ordered the service to cease all sharing of copyrighted music, and the Napster network shut down that July 11 — exactly one year after Ulrich’s testimony. And in September 2002, after an $85 million deal with German firm Bertelsmann to turn Napster into a subscription service fell through, the service was liquidated. The Napster name’s been attached to a succession of online fee-based music stores and streaming services, but at this point it’s just the latest attempt to slap a familiar brand name on an otherwise less-renowned service.

Still, file-sharing continued on — through canny uses of sites like megaupload, or decentralized peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa — and the inevitable emergence of a mass-market digital music-purchasing service first hit its stride with the Steve Jobs-initiated iTunes Store, which had become the biggest music vendor in the world by early 2010.

Maybe that’s how you bought St. Anger, Metallica’s first album since the Napster debacle — their first without Jason Newsted and their last with Bob Rock, and the subject of the infamous documentary Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster. Whether you dragged that album into the trash after listening to an endless, repetitive trudge of an alt-metal Metallica album without guitar solos doesn’t matter, really — it debuted at #1 on the album charts in a whole bunch of countries and went double platinum, so the industry got to wipe their brows with increasingly crinkled $100 bills for another week. But by the time 2008’s Death Magnetic marked the 25th anniversary of their bludgeoning, revolutionary debut Kill ‘Em All, they were just as likely to be considered the midlife crisis goofs from the “Bargains / Imprisoning me” meme as they are the great elder statesmen of metal.

The 20 years Metallica had since they sued Napster only got weirder from there — Lulu-caliber weirder — but how’s this for weird: Instead of finding out about a new song, a new album, even a new band on Napster, then going to Target or Best Buy to pick up more of that music on CD, you wound up discovering, listening to, and buying music all on the same app or the same website, and in the same lossy MP3 format that used to be the only viable option in the pre-broadband ’90s. Then the ephemeral accessibility of streaming took trendy precedence over any notion of actual concrete ownership of music. And as individual song and album purchases receded in favor of a paid-subscription model, the payouts from services like Spotify and Apple Music haven’t been the kind of rising tide that benefits what used to be the record business’s booming middle class — or even its marquee names. The issue of artists getting paid what they’re worth has never been more important, and the battle over Napster has never felt more alien.