The P2P giant was shut down 20 years ago this week. But the omnivorous mindset it encouraged in a generation resonates in the very best of today’s genre-smashing pop
It’s 6pm on a weeknight in 2002. I settle into a desk chair and thump the huge, round power button on the family computer with my big toe. It clunks like a manual typewriter returning. Several minutes of whirring and clunking ensue as Windows XP boots up, bathing my 13-year-old face in its harsh blue glow. Next, another few minutes of what sounds like Wall-E being fed through a meat grinder as 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 for as many horribly compressed, incorrectly titled songs as possible and watch them race to 100%. Out of Reach by the Get Up Kids competes with Method Man’s Bring the Pain. Jostling beneath them, probably: a selection of Slipknot singles, Fiona Apple’s entire discography, an unspeakable 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 see things, Napster killed the music industry or set it free. The peer-to-peer (P2P) filesharing programme, launched by Boston university students Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker in 1999, enabled users to share audio files stored on their personal hard drive. In theory this made it helpful for accessing, say, bootleg live recordings or hardcore punk EPs limited to 300 copies on tape. In practice, it saw a peak of 80 million users downloading anything that had ever been released at a rate of 14,000 songs a minute.
Napster wasn’t the only software of its kind – LimeWire, WinMX, Vuze and a number of others offered the same service – but it was the most high profile. It became enemy No 1 to the music industry, which had been slow to adapt to digitisation. Metallica and Dr Dre became embroiled in heated lawsuits against the software company, alongside the US trade body RIAA. Ron Stone of Gold Mountain Entertainment, who had co-managed artists including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, called it “the single most insidious website I’ve ever seen.” Public sentiment, however, lay with Napster.
Like most teenagers at the time, especially those who grew up without much money, I didn’t think twice about undercutting multimillionaire Lars Ulrich for his share of £10.99 for a copy of Master of Puppets. The real hit was taken by the labels, which is why many artists – some for political reasons, others seeing it as a canny PR move to boost their countercultural clout – 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 summer 2000 and Public Enemy’s Chuck D saw Napster as part of a “war” that saw people clawing the power back from the industry. In a speech to the Digital Hollywood Online Entertainment Conference in May 2000, Courtney Love stated that the “real pirates” were “major label recording contracts” that trap artists in a cycle of debt, promotion and lack of ownership.
It’s fair to say that for most users it wasn’t a question of industry ethics. Napster was beloved mainly by teenagers and students with the internet at their fingertips and a curiosity that far outstripped their financial means. Faced with the option to discover anything in the world free of charge, it seemed nonsensical to spend your own money buying a handful of CDs a year based on one or two singles you’d heard on MTV.
In the end, the industry won the battle. On 3 September 2002, a court order forced Napster to liquidate its assets and it shut down. However, it lost the war by a comically large margin. The popularity of Napster ushered in a new ecosystem based on discovery and instant access – a forebear to 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 bigger. This was the first time ever that young people were being exposed to sounds and subcultures outside their immediate surroundings and interests – in real time, without leaving the house.
As a small town teenager, I felt like that dog being shot into space on Sputnik 2. I was everywhere I shouldn’t be, poking my nose into everything that was going on from basements in Long Island to tower blocks in west London. There is absolutely no way I would have been wandering around my village in rural Wales listening to rapper Bashy, for instance, if it weren’t for P2P sharing. It’s easy to see filesharing as an act of piracy by arseholes who have no value for music, but there were also plenty of music lovers who felt as though they had been invited to every club, studio, street party and bedroom in the world.
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It’s no coincidence that the most experimental periods of modern music have clustered around the emergence of services that obliterated barriers to access, and with it genre. It’s partly thanks to software such as Napster, coupled with the burgeoning social media landscape, that the 00s charts were a mess of sounds from Lil Jon to Taking Back Sunday, which in turn informed the hybrid sounds of pop pioneers such as Sophie, Grimes and Charli XCX. Similarly, the late-00s blogosphere, a pick’n’mix of free MP3s, collapsed the boundaries between indies and majors, prompting A-listers such as Beyoncé to collaborate with James Blake. The dominance of rap fused with the alternative genres emo, pop punk and metal was largely facilitated by SoundCloud, and most of 2022’s bedroom pop stars wouldn’t be where they are without TikTok. The amount of era-defining artists spotted online by fans rather than scouted by labels has its roots in the P2P era.
Besides, the music industry is set to crack $153bn in revenue by 2030 and it now costs £45 to see a mid-level indie band at Brixton Academy. So it’s hard to feel too guilty about those illicit Slipknot downloads.