Reflections on the 10th anniversary of Napster


Something you might not know about me: I was kicked off Napster in 2001.

It wasn’t for sharing any songs by Metallica or Dr. Dre, the two highest-profile Napster nemeses whose labels had users kicked off the file sharing service. It was for a far less high-profile act: Welch rockers the Manic Street Preachers. In February 2001, a handful of songs leaked from their upcoming album Know Your Enemy, which wasn’t due in stores for another month. Now, compared to the leaks we see today, this was amateur hour: five tracks from an 18-song record ripped in absolutely atrocious quality. But this was before the music industry had accepted “the leak” as an unfortunate but inevitable part of the business, so Sony freaked out. They put the screws to Napster, and soon anyone who was sharing those songs had their accounts terminated.

I was pissed. It would be one thing if they had gone after all users sharing the band’s songs, but they only targeted those with the leaked songs. So basically, the record company messed up and they were taking it out on the band’s fans. In fact, if you dig around the Internet, you can find an NME article where my 18-year-old self is quoted as saying just that.

Mostly, though, I was upset over what I was losing: access to the most astounding record store that had ever been assembled, where every note and chord you could have ever wanted to listen to was available at the touch of a button – and at no charge, no less! For an 18-year-old music fan, Napster was as exciting to me as it was horrifying to the record industry.

It’s fitting that the Manics brought my Napster experience to an end, because they were also its beginning. I had spent the summer of 2000 listening to their Holy Bible record endlessly, entranced by its slash-and-burn riffs and nihilistic, intertextual lyrics. I soon owned all their records, but like many British bands the Manics had a crazily deep back catalogue of singles and b-sides unavailable on this side of the Atlantic. One of the first things I remember searching for on Napster was the Manics, and up came an entire list of songs that I had only read about online. A few clicks later and these songs were blasting from my stereo. I was hooked.

* * * * *

Human history is elastic – every now and then someone gives the rubber band a snap and we go flying beyond our expectations, only yanked back by the elastic’s end. Then we bounce around a bit before ending up at a new equilibrium, waiting for the next snap.

Shawn Fanning’s snap is still reverberating through the halls of the record industry. Exactly 10 years to the day after Napster’s creation, the future of the music business is still uncertain, confounding, perplexing. The defenders of the old paradigms must feel relieved that no single file sharing system has ever reached the level of overwhelming ubiquity that Napster had. But that’s hardly much of a victory, is it?

No, I think it’s fair to say that the industry’s slow response to Napster and its brethren – a response both heavy-handed and lumbering – shows how completely they failed to appreciate that the entire music economy had just been destroyed and rebuilt again around them and against them. The means of distribution had been snatched away and now was in the hands of anyone and everyone. That it took the industry four years post-Napster to finally come up with a viable alternative in iTunes (and that wasn’t even really “the industry”!) speaks volumes.

I’ve laid out my ethical complications with downloading on this blog several times, and it would be redundant to once again complain about the rise of an entire generation who is unwilling to pay for music. But as I reflect on ten years post-Napster, I find myself remembering that in ‘file sharing,’ it’s the second word that makes all the difference.

* * * * *

All art is social, music no less than any other. There’s the conversation between artist and audience, the message behind the music; the conversation between artists, a network of influences and borrowed tunes; and the conversation between fans, gossiping and sharing news and notes among them. Music is always more fun when others are involved – why else do we attend concerts with friends? We may not be able to talk with them over the noise during the show, but we want to be able to share excited glances, sing alongs and post-show exhilaration with them.

This is what people miss when they’re retelling the Napster story. Sure, everyone’s first “wow” moment with Napster was just like mine, coming to terms with the sheer volume of music immediately available. But someone had to put all those songs there. Individuals around the world had to open their hard drives and do their part to help their fellow men and women find the music that matters to them.

There’s a thrill that comes from sharing something wonderful. It’s the reason why we tell each other about new bands, great books or the minutia of our daily lives. It’s the reason why Facebook and Twitter are the future of the Internet, and things like “searching” start to see a bit old-fashioned. And it’s one of the reasons, I think, why Napster took off, in spite of all its ethical complications. How could sharing music be wrong?

Napster, for the first time, brought the entire world together in one giant musical conversation. We shared the songs we wanted everyone else to hear, and we took from each other the sounds that excited us. It’s no wonder that even those of us conflicted about downloading were disappointed when the conversation was taken away from all of us in July 2001.

With the rise of iTunes and with the disorienting and confusing file sharing universe post-Napster, the music world has reached an important milestone – it is now, arguably, easier to purchase music online than it is to download it illegally. But the challenge for the industry now is to reignite the social experience of music for the digital age, to take the communal setting of the record store or concert hall and duplicate it online to the benefit of the musicians whose livelihood depends on making money from their art.

That social experience exists, of course. You see it in the online journalism of websites like Pitchfork, from the reviews to the comments. You see it on social networking sites every time a new record is discovered and makes the rounds. You see it on YouTube, with the latest tracks all mashed up against one another. You see it in the litany of music blogs around the web, including this one. But the industry is only sporadically part of the conversation. The social experience of music has been rebuilt, but completely separated from the point of purchase.

10 years ago today, Napster let us start our own musical conversation. In the years since its demise, we’ve managed to rebuild that conversation in every nook and cranny of the Internet. There’s no doubt in my mind that the future of music is social. How – or if – the industry joins our conversation remains uncertain.

For more on Napster and its impact, I highly recommend the Globe and Mail’s recent “Download Decade” series of feature articles. Really great stuff.


3 responses to “Reflections on the 10th anniversary of Napster

  1. Can you believe that it’s been a decade already? Wow, sure makes a music geek feel old!

    I think that you may be on to something here my friend. Thanks to the internet, music is far more social than it has ever been. A record store has the same few regulars, but the internet has far, far more people (with more similar tastes) than that connecting across distances and in ways that people never fully thought possible even a decade ago.

    Hell, one could argue that Web 2.0 started with Napster, funny we didn’t realize it then.

  2. Pingback: Radar Trend » …in which McNutt reflects on the 10th anniversary of Napster …·

  3. Pingback: Radar Trend » …in which McNutt reflects on the 10th anniversary of Napster …·

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