Today, file sharing is second nature. The sanctity of intellectual property is at the mercy of Dropbox, Google Drive, and, above all, our own individual moral codes (which, judging by the financially strapped music industry, aren’t very high). Piracy is a culturally permissible form of theft, and even those that have never pirated anything are expressly familiar with the technology that made the practice popular: Napster. The infamous file sharing service was unassailably influential, documenting more than 80 million users during its heyday. It was short lived, though, and 15 years ago this week, Napster shuttered its digital doors, but not before permanently altering the way we think about the intrinsic value of music as both an art form and a commodity.
In 1999, Shawn Fanning developed the software that would become Napster, launching it alongside co-founders John Fanning (his uncle) and now-billionaire Sean Parker (aka the first president of Facebook, aka Justin Timberlake in The Social Network). It wasn’t the first technology to facilitate file sharing—IRC, Hotline, and Usenet all already existed by then—but its friendly interface and specialty in MP3 file transfers made Napster the most popular.
Most people just saw it as a way to get free shit.
We all know MP3 as the easily shared digital format commonly used for music files. And that’s what Napster traded on, and 80 million people wanted in on the action. Some users justified their downloading practices because they had already purchased physical copies of the same music and now they just wanted to listen to it on their computers. Most people, though, just saw it as a way to get free shit.
Colleges, veritable hubs for poor, music-loving youths, latched on to the peer-to-peer (P2P) phenomenon. So much so that campuses began monitoring individuals’ bandwidths (at least mine did). File sharing accounted for upwards of 61% of schools’ external network traffic. That was enough for colleges to crack down on the practice even without the ulterior worries of copyright infringement. But those would come too, of course, because P2P networks represented a major problem for the canonized record industry: people weren’t paying for music anymore.
Who could forget those “you wouldn’t steal a car” warnings that appeared in between previews on old DVDs. The industry knew it had a problem, and so did many of its biggest artists. Metallica and Dr. Dre both filed lawsuits against Napster and then disclosed thousands of downloaders’ usernames to the federal courts. Napster settled both lawsuits, but it was hardly the last of the company’s legal troubles. In 2000, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued Napster for “contributory and vicarious copyright infringement” under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). And thus the notion of file sharing was publicly dispensed as nefarious and altogether detrimental to music and musicians everywhere.
It wasn’t so simple as that, though. The old guard, the highly profitable tentpole artists—the Metallica’s and Dr. Dre’s of the world—relied on traditional commerce strategies and larger-than-life brands to sell albums, and for them the RIAA and DMCA worked just fine. The independent and little known artists, though, the ones that had received no airplay and no support from that system, needed publicity before they could worry about album sales.
Consider Radiohead. In 2000, they were a band that had never hit the Top 20 in the US, released Kid A. The album appeared on Napster three months before its physical release, and, even though it was an experimental record without a single, Kid A sat atop the Billboard Top 200 when it eventually arrived, helping cement the seminal band as a musical tour de force. Where would Radiohead be without Napster? Maybe still swimming in moon shaped pools. Maybe not.
However, the true Napster torchbearer is Dispatch. Remember Dispatch? This was a band that had no airplay, no formal promotion, and no albums with any notable accolades. And yet, in 2007, Dispatch was able to sell out three consecutive Madison Square Garden shows. That’s Beyoncé level! Without the illicit support they received on Napster, it’s likely we would have never heard of the Vermont indie folk band. The two entities worked so well together that Dispatch even promoted the file sharing service.
What Napster was, then, was not simply a system cheat; rather, it was a precipitous shift in cultural consciousness, one that accompanied many industries when the Internet became a ubiquitous institution. Now that information was available on our computers and (soon thereafter) in our pockets, how could the transfer of that information be monetized? That’s the question that forced people to think outside the box, and, ironically, resort to a P2P-esque streaming model that resembles the once popular and forever contentious Napster.
The storm has calmed since Napster closed down its services back in 2001. The Album Era’s death by file sharing has come and gone, and even the industry’s old guard has begun cooperating, divvying out royalties to streaming services like Spotify, SoundCloud, Rdio, Tidal, Apple Music—all progeny of the pioneering Napster brand (which actually still exists; Roxio bought it and its logos during the company’s bankruptcy auction. They then sold it to Best Buy in 2008, who merged the brand with Rhapsody in 2011. Just last month, Rhapsody phased out its own image in favor of the Napster brand. It’s back! Kind of…).
Some will argue that streaming and file sharing have cheapened music, and it’s true that the current model needs review until dedicated artists get what they deserve (ahopefully, a livable wage). But the streaming model has also come with a vast increase in accessibility. It’s now much easier for your super talented roommate to find an audience and, ostensibly, make a profit by making music. Theoretically, she could just record a track at home and upload it to SoundCloud; then she’ll be off and running. But in order to make any of that ostensible profit, though, she will likely have to tour with merchandise, and even that is a gamble.
But definitively, the concert industry has blossomed since Napster’s death, and it’s helped redistribute some of the wealth to lesser-known musicians. Out of necessity, artists now spend much more time touring than they did in pre-Napster days, which has tripled the US concert industry. And, as REDEF CEO Jason Hirschhorn explains in this excellent article, 83% of that growth has gone to non-Top 100 touring artists.
What this all boils down to is an age-old debate: what should art cost?
Your hypothetical roommate (probably) won’t make any money from that SoundCloud account, though. Financial progress has been dismal when it comes to streaming and album sales. Interestingly enough, antiquated label agreements remain in place and continue to net labels the majority of both revenue and royalties from streaming services. Despite the industry’s well-established disruption in recent years, that old guard is still unwilling to relinquish their control to the musicians themselves—even when it means those artists are counting pennies when they should be counting dollars.
What this all boils down to is an age-old debate: what should art cost? There are many viable arguments and many interesting discussions, but without Napster’s prescient vision, the nature of these imperative conversations would be vastly different.