What was the first song you ever downloaded on Napster? Crazytown – Butterfly? Fuel – Hemorrhage? Papa Roach – Last Resort? Whatever it was, you came home one afternoon in 2000, punched a song into the search bar and your relationship with music changed forever. So think about it. What was that song?
In 2012, Napster is long forgotten, its memories discarded years ago alongside ICQ, the tamagotchi and Tickle Me Elmo. But Napster was never a fad. It was never the predecessor for something better. And eleven years after its death, questions still linger.
What if Napster had prevailed in its legal battles? What if downloading didn’t foreshadow the fall of the recording industry? What was the program’s true potential? Those answers will come. But let’s start with the facts.
Napster was created in 1999 by then 18 year old Shawn Fanning (that’s Shawn Fanning, not Sean Parker, for those who believe everything they heard in The Social Network) in his Northeastern University dorm room. The concept? Sharing music with friends. The reality? Any song. Any time. Free. Napster spread across US campuses like wildfire, capturing the hearts, minds and desktops of students coast to coast. It seemed too good to be true. Evidently, it was.
In 2000, the program caught the attention of industry giants Dr. Dre and Metallica who argued (justifiably) that the program enabled its users to illegally obtain music. A number of copyright-related lawsuits ensued (most notably with the Recording Industry Association of America) and Napster was forced to essentially pull the plug in mid-2001. While it would later return as pay-service, it was never the same.
Functionally, Napster was quickly replaced. In time, it was forgotten. We all moved on to Kazaa or Morpheus. Then Limewire. Then bitTorrent. We began to think of music as something that was free. We justified our actions. Why pay for something when I don’t have to? Over time, this mentality became the norm. A revolution. First stop: Boston. Next stop: the world.
But while critics were busy painting Fanning as the antichrist of the industry, a groundbreaking opportunity was presented by Napster. In essence, downloading didn’t have to be the end. It could be the beginning. Everyone could walk away a winner.
But they didn’t. And everyone lost.