The Case for Napster, Some Fifteen Years Later: Hindsight and Regret in 2013's Downloaded


I was born in that sweet spot in the ‘90s where I was old enough to appreciate more traditional mediums (CDS, cassettes, vinyls), and lucky enough to witness the birth of digital music distribution (first generation iPods, iTunes, file sharing). I was, however, too young to truly fathom that a Moment in History was occurring around me: while the entertainment industry at large was being capsized, it was still business as usual, as far as I was concerned. 

All these changes were initially exciting, but in a non-threatening way: it was like going on vacation somewhere different from what we’d all known, but with the knowledge that we’d be back sooner or later. In truth, each subtle wave of change brought something irreversible, but so titillating at the same time that we were mostly swept away. 

And in many ways, it was not so bad. I approached the early days of AOL, YouTube, meme culture and the like with equal parts curiosity and hesitation. I wasn’t sure where it was going, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be indelible.

But I also remember the decline of Blockbuster, the collapse of Tower Records, the gradual shift toward more novel forms of communication, and I began to be wary. There was something disquieting about the future we couldn’t foresee, and an inherent part of me — I hadn’t quite given voice to it — feared that we would come to regret what we were embracing so wholeheartedly. 

On a more selfish level, I saw my own hobbies potentially threatened: would the book industry be next? would the Barbie dolls I loved so much become obsolete? would drawing and painting be replaced by their digital counterparts? (I wasn’t totally wrong, but I wasn’t exactly spot-on about the manner in which it would happen).

Of all the developments occurring at the intersection of traditional business practices and technological innovation, none were more glaring than the music industry’s handling of the Napster debacle; none, additionally, have made me feel so conflicted. 

How do you remedy to a problem you barely understand, a problem you’ve never encountered?

Mp3 file sharing came in like a torpedo in 1999, going off on everything the industry thought it knew, and everything audiences thought was possible. The response was so polarizing that its effect can still be felt, almost twenty years later. College students were downloading music with terrifying gusto, and the industry downright panicked: how do you remedy to a problem you barely understand, a problem you’ve never encountered?

When Napster was sued by the RIAA (The Recording Industry Association of America) that same year, it was as if we were witnessing a David/Goliath moment: the underdog and the jock, the anarchist and the System, the rebel and ‘The Man’. It was thrilling, it was catharsis in the face of the potential Fall of the seemingly indomitable. I remember Fanning metaphorically flipping the bird to Metallica (while wearing a Metallica shirt, no less) as he introduced an award at the 2000 VMAs, to thunderous applause. I remember thinking: now this is what dissent looks like.

It was a new millennium, and all bets were off.

And then by 2002, Napster had all but imploded: the company was served with an injunction in 2001, was ordered to pay millions in copyright, failed in its many attempts to salvage itself, and eventually filed for bankruptcy. The bang with which they had begun ended in a pitiful whimper. 

Last year, I watched the documentary Downloaded which reexamines the entire fiasco in the founders’ own words. It is a compelling watch which makes thoughtful observations on the music industry, with the invaluable benefit of almost fifteen years’ worth of hindsight: and Heavens, did a lot happen in fifteen years. 

I also found that, as I dissected the situation with the same amount of hindsight, the many emotional grey areas I had harbored were also put in perspective.

In a nutshell: the majority of the record labels’ hostile reactions to Napster highlights their thinly veiled preoccupation with the financial aspect of peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing at the time, for valid and invalid reasons. As for the artists: considering that their respective bodies of work were involved in the issue of illegal distribution, there was a financial, as well as an intellectual conflict. 

Ultimately, I think that the main reason it spurred so many various reactions is that people not only view their art differently, they also make art (here: music) for very different reasons: some are concerned about the money/fame/prestige/legacy aspects, while others are more interested in connecting with people, spreading a message, and so forth. There is a world of nuances in between these extremes, evidently, which no doubt contributed in the misunderstandings and preconceived notions regarding the intentions of the Napster creators and users. 

This is the most apparent fact in the Downloaded documentary where, during the Court of Appeals of October 2000, one lawyer insisted that Napster was “designed to be a pirate system”, while another despaired that shutting down Napster would also shut down all possible (and legal) innovations, beyond the music industry, that a P2P system could lead to. The former perspective could be claimed by the artists who rejected Napster, while the latter could be a summation of those who supported it. 

Detractors could argue, first and foremost, that illegal music sharing, through services like Napster, Kazaa or Limewire, diminished the appreciation of their art, because it completely made light of the time and effort put into getting it out into the world. I equate it to the “Little Red Hen” fairy tale: here, the audience would be the animals trying to take advantage of what they had no hand in making. Knowing how hard it was for them to make a living from their music (unless they got lucky), I imagine it was hurtful to consider that their fans were more interested in instant gratification than in supporting them. I think of my own music, and this becomes a troubling prospect indeed.

If the intention of the artist was to spread their music, then whether commendably or not, that is exactly what file sharers had helped do.

But this could not be farther from the truth: the wild popularity of Napster illustrated, on the contrary, the hunger that had always existed for music, as well as the desperation to obtain it, through every means possible. If we consider the issue from a purely financial standpoint, then indeed, the losses were great. But if the intention of the artist was to spread their music, then whether commendably or not, that is exactly what file sharers had helped do. 

Many people, for various reasons (no stable source of income, underage and with no jobs, geographical constraints etc.) could not access the music they so desperately craved. I vividly remember the days when albums could cost as much as $20. One could argue that these obstacles harmed the appreciation of fans for their favorite artists. In short: how can you support music you can’t listen to in the first place?

Another major grievance could be that artists realized that the impact of Napster on their careers could potentially set up a precedent wherein they’d have to change their methods. In other words, audiences now had the possibility to directly acquire the music they wanted, when they wanted it — hell, if they even wanted it in the first place. Clearly, the control had fallen into their hands. 

Why bother touring, promoting an album, doing press rounds, marketing themselves to the public, if said public had the choice to be completely disinterested, if they no longer had to tune into and wait by the radio to listen to their songs? Why bother making entire concept albums or intricate album trilogies if fans could choose to download only one or two songs, at the fraction of the price? In the scope of artistry, as well as in the ways that musical acts presented themselves to the public, Napster completely upended the existing dynamic. It must have been dispiriting to have to work twice as hard in order to make fans feel like spending their money on you was a worthwhile endeavor. 

This particular dimension of the file-sharing issue is one which no doubt plagued musicians of the time in a most insidious way. Napster brought about an intimacy and immediacy in the relationship between artist and fans which could be as gratifying as it was ruthless. If, for example, I were a controversial singer with dwindling ticket sales as well as dwindling album sales because of Napster, I’d have watched my creative and financial fate being determined by the public, rather helplessly.

Why bother ... marketing themselves to the public, if said public had the choice to be completely disinterested?

When looked at from the standpoint of an artist supporting Napster, many of the same points are echoed (financial, creative, ethical etc.), but with a completely different spin. When one disregarded the 'profit' angle, Napster was an absolute promotional miracle: an artist whose sole concern was to connect with as many people as possible and make a name for themselves would have found a great ally in P2P file-sharing. 

In the documentary, we’re given a few examples of those whose salvation came with the program: Dispatch, an indie band from Vermont, were an interesting figurehead for that argument. They were not selling many albums, but so many people had heard of them through downloading their music that they managed an impressive level of recognition and success. They were not the only ones. 

I'll be the Devil's advocate for a second.

Although I never personally used Napster — one could say I missed the cutoff, Napster having officially terminated in 2002, while my use of file sharing began in 2004 —, as an avid teenager who hungered for music, there is much I would not have been exposed to, had it not been for Lime Wire, Kazaa, Ares, and other successors. I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but it is a truth I find useless to deny: I am who my years of illegal downloading made me. I was able to appreciate music in a whole new light, explore a millennia’s worth of styles, languages, decades: the Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder disapproved, of course, but the payoff was so, so worth it, that for years I continued to find ways to justify it. 

And indeed, for many niche and/or indie bands from underrepresented genres as well as for many foreign artists (East Asian ones in particular), this was a way to reach fans they otherwise would never have made. The freedom offered by the internet broke down the constraints that had previously stood between musicians and music lovers: price, geography, probability of exposure, and so on, and so forth.

The reluctance of some artists and record labels blinded them to the possibilities of the future of the industry: traditionally, a person who only had $16-$20 to spend would more than likely do so on an album they had had their sights on for a while. File sharing permitted users to be exposed to a greater number of artists from a wider pool, which could create a domino effect (enticing them to look for similar artists, from similar periods, countries, genres). If the music industry’s true aim is to promote new finds and a deeper appreciation for music, isn’t this somewhat of a blessing?

A music buff who’s able to get a proper taste of it might be encouraged to go to a concert or promote the artist in question through word-of mouth. It may not have been the model designed by executives, and it may have taken much more time to bear its fruits, but that should not have made it any less legitimate: it was just another form of success. In fact, others musical acts besides Dispatch have shown interesting long-term advantages of services like Napster.

The Arctic Monkeys, one of the most successful indie rock bands of the last decade, started out handing CDs to people for free and allowing their music to be file-shared, which eventually resulted in praise and recognition. Their improbable success demonstrated to file-sharing detractors that it was very possible to build a loyal fanbase by letting them appreciate the music first, before asking that they pay what many of them could not afford. 

It may not have been the model designed by executives ... but that should not have made it any less legitimate: it was just another form of success.

This second perspective of the debate, regarding the relationship between musical acts and their fans, is undoubtedly why some artists supported, or at the very least tolerated Napster. The reality is that Napster and the like (Bearshare, Kazaa, Gnutella…) started a phenomenon which, with the increasing influence of the internet for creative medias, became impossible to stop or reverse.

Having understood that, those who went with the tide and encouraged their fans to do what they would undoubtedly came across as much more humane and sympathetic to them than those who, like Eminem, treated them like traitors. When interviewed about it, the latter soberly concluded, in between stern (and expletive-ridden) reprimands: “That Napster shit, if that gets any bigger, it could kill the whole purpose of making music … The Internet is taking the whole fucking thrill away from that.”

This public relations issue was mentioned in Downloaded, where the war on Napster damaged the perception that many fans, made to feel like they were thieves, ignorant and opportunistic, erstwhile had of the industry. Among other avenues, legal action was taken by many artists. Even if they were preoccupied with the creative side, condemnations by the likes of Dr. Dre regarding the financial fallout made them come across as greedy. Metallica as much as went to war with the company, and the repercussions on their image has been well documented.

On the flipside, an artist who encouraged this (fan videos, covers, tributes, merchandise, file-sharing) appeared unselfish, charitable, genuine. To a greater extent, this strengthened their mutual bond, and created a following and loyalty that could extend indefinitely; and as previously mentioned, even if musicians did not profit from it, eventually it would contribute to their success, which would in turn be profitable. 

Whether the intentions were authentic, or whether this was a very calculated strategy, it was a virtuous circle that shrewd artists like Fred Durst or Wyclef Jean surely understood at the time. It is thus ironic that years later, Dr. Dre’s business ventures ended up being in support of streaming, while in 2007, Trent Reznor famously told his fans to steal his music rather than enrich the music industry which he felt was being unfair to consumers and artists. Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, admitted that their initial reaction had been careless, telling Y92 in 2016 that “I think we would have educated ourselves better about what the other side were thinking and what the real issues were.”

His (and other artists who have similarly changed their minds) oft-contradictory statements regarding the music industry have coincided with the favorability of artists’ success therein, highlighting the supposed greed some of them have been accused of — at worse, one would deem it hypocritical.

As a music lover, I have often sided with Napster, while as an artist, I wholly understand and empathize with the preoccupations that were raised.

I could go on, with grounds that support and discount both parties. As a music lover, I have often sided with Napster, while as an artist, I wholly understand and empathize with the preoccupations that were raised at the time. I mentioned earlier that there has always been a 'grey area'-like quality about the debate, because of the versatility of opinions, depending on the stance taken.

But the weathered, contemplative point of view the documentary offers is, in truth, what I needed in order to obtain that elusive perspective. I’ve come to see, especially in retrospect, that it all came down to bad timing and misunderstanding between two influential parties.

Napster was not a one-hit wonder, a so-bad-it-was-good idea, a how did we ever get to that point? moment in history. Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, the co-founders, shed light on that which had not been properly considered and listened to; and above all, the company could have shaped our cultural landscape in much more marked ways.

In a nutshell, Napster predicted that we would live in a world in which the concept of ‘sharing’ would become the nucleus, the main driving force behind much of the most successful industries. It is in no way surprising that Sean Parker became so involved with Spotify and Facebook in later years, nor that the template of the ideas that he and Shawn Fanning put in place (P2P) was transferred to social media (Twitter, Snapchat etc.), ride-sharing applications (Uber, Lyft), review and search engines (Google, Yelp, etc.) and many others.

For eons, the relationship between the music industry and the consumers was in a top-down fashion, with aggressive marketing and pervasive promotion done in order to incite the public’s interest. The Napster founders understood that the times where people would accept orders from faceless executives about who they should listen to, and why, were quickly coming to an end. Word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer recommendation, which had always been prevalent, would become even more so with the growing influence of the internet, and the founders were smart to try to capitalize on that fact. 

Napster also foreshadowed that we would soon live in times when people took control over the way art was distributed, consumed, critiqued and remunerated: ultimately, this would also impact the way music was produced. Indeed, P2P encouraged the distribution of single music files, rather than full-scale albums, which undeniably fostered the way that singles and EPs are often favored over longer bodies of work nowadays. Beyond the fact of people’s reluctance to pay for more than they could, Napster brought to light an issue that those more perceptive have come to understand over the years: one of the biggest misconceptions industry leads, regarding file-sharers, is that they would never be willing to compromise and access their music legally. 

However, as Fanning and Parker’s lawyers tirelessly said, audiences were not trying to be rigid but simply, in many cases, unable to pay a lot of money for little music. Membership-based services, which Napster creators advocated for, were met with skepticism, whereas they are cornerstones of profit today. Audiences are, in fact, happy to support the artists they love, but with little incentives and a lack of mutual trust with an industry they consider to be rapacious and inflexible, this was not an easy task to implement. The continued success of Bandcamp and Kickstarters to support creators directly, instead of through third parties, seals my argument.

Music is a connection which should take place between the supporters, and the artists who want to release it into the world in the first place. If anything, the industry should be the middleman, not those who dictate what belongs to whom, and why (I’m thinking about the respective atrociousness and absurdity that Kesha and JoJo have had to go through with their labels).

Audiences are, in fact, happy to support the artists they love, but with little incentives and a lack of mutual trust with [the] industry ... this was not an easy task

The fundamental difference between 1999 and 2018 is that the concept of sharing, as well as its immediacy, is something we have had the time to get used to, whereas it was still a foreign notion then. News, pictures, movies, books, articles and so much more are circulated with a casualness that would have made creative industries, at the turn of the millennium, downright nervous. The desire to do so has always existed, I believe; the innovations needed to make this happen are what had to catch up. 

We now have the technologies to fulfill that age-old yearning, namely to have music in large quantities, immediately, in a non-binding way; and in turn, having seen the many advantages of opening themselves to these new platforms, more artists have complied than would have done in 1999. The results of the aforementioned virtuous circle are now becoming gradually apparent. 

Ultimately, and with the privilege of perspective and hindsight, I still believe that the idea of Napster was terrific, one which, sadly, was too ahead of its time; so much so, in fact, that: 

  1. its credibility,
  2. the faith needed from the industry executives, and
  3. concrete proofs that this was something viable and successful

never had the occasion to catch up, by the time Napster went defunct. The phenomenon happened blindingly fast, and people were precisely that: blinded. 

As a ‘90s kid and as a preteen/teen in the 2000s, I remember the distinct cultural shift towards technophobia (the Y2K hysteria and movies like The Matrix and Hackers did not help in the least), which, at best, was a mixture of awe and mild worry about how these new technologies could change the ways we related to each other. At worst, it was utterly pessimistic about what they could do to us as a society: there was the collective fear that they would allow us to manipulate each other, give power to the “masses”, and fracture the way we viewed the classic hierarchies of influence and power: and arguably, they did. 

But in the same breadth, few of these technophobes saw how amazing it could also be, how much it could make us closer and especially, democratize art in every sense. It could make businesses rethink the way they connected to music lovers, and handled and viewed their own work in general. 

In the frenzy of Napster’s popularity, the music business had no time to digest said questions, and yet they were being asked to answer them on the spot.

I think that in that climate, Napster never really stood a chance, because it was the first real game-changer, the first event that challenged the industry in such a profound way, and confronted them, for the first time, with deeply uncomfortable question. In the frenzy of Napster’s popularity, the music business had no time to digest said questions, and yet they were being asked to answer them on the spot.

Having had the necessary time to truly ponder these events has given a big part of the music industry the distance, I believe, to see the bigger picture they may have hastily overlooked, initially. Having also had more than fifteen years to truly understand the internet (technology, social media etc.), and the many mind-boggling ways it has contributed to changing our world is why other membership-based services are working now, with the template that Napster had conceived. 

More than anything, I think that in the years since the rise and fall of Napster, the industry has had the time to be in serious crisis (existential, financial, artistic…). This required many of its key players to realize that they had a big hand in this dynamic, and that they needed to change the messages people were receiving from them. The mutual trust between audiences and the industry is slowly being built through the compromise which has been made with membership-based streaming services, and this is the result of many trials and errors over the years. 

Beyond some obvious examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (compassion = good, racism = bad), I am a firm proponent of the concept that above all, there is a right way to do things. Napster was conceived with good intentions, I believe: but it was done with such abrasiveness that I cannot entirely blame the chaos it generated, and the swift sanctions that ensued. Fanning, Parker and their lawyers had sound arguments, but the occasionally mutinous attitude they adopted certainly didn't play in their favor (nor did the quasi-celebrity status they achieved overnight, which attracted disdain from some of the industry higher-ups).

Similarly, those who opposed Napster did so with vitriol and doggedness, which was useless because the changes they feared so much ended up happening anyway; what is more, it shut down any and all possibility of a conversation that would have benefited both parties in the long run. Maybe we would have had Spotify, or something like it, decades earlier; maybe audiences’ repugnance with the industry would not have resulted in such financial losses; perhaps we could have saved mediums that were on their way out (CDs?); perhaps we would care more about music awards today. 

I feel privileged to have seen these monumental shifts happen before me: I appreciate the current conveniences because I remember the days of the Walkman and cassettes, the days when an afternoon’s enjoyment hinged on how many working batteries I had left for my CD player. Beyond the personal ramifications, the ‘Napster vs. The World’ period (1999 - 2002) happened at the opportune time, when centuries of ideas and innovations were finally catching up to age-old practices in the creative industries. 

Napster is the catalyst which was needed to have this conversation and indeed, it spearheaded the movement which allowed Apple Music and other services to flourish. But sadly, it is also the ship that had to sink so that others learned what not to do, and how not to approach these critical issues.