This Revolution Has Already Taken Place: The Rise and Fall of Napster

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As you read this, there’s a good chance you’re enjoying some amazing tunes through an online streaming service like Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music. Or maybe you prefer keeping things a little bit old-school with your trusty iPod and — ready for it? — headphones that actually have wires. No matter what your favorite way to tune in might be, it’s safe to say the way we listen to music, not to mention the music industry itself, has evolved drastically in the last couple of decades. Many people credit this musical revolution to the peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing software program Napster.

But Napster’s appeal to everyday listeners — namely the ability to expand their music libraries without having to pay to access that new music — was also responsible for its downfall. After facing costly lawsuits from irate executives and artists, Napster shut down its servers in July of 2001. As we approach the two-decade mark since Napster’s demise, we’re taking a look back at the rise and fall of one of the most controversial web-based applications in internet history, from its origins to the way it changed the music industry forever.

The Rise of Napster: What Led to the Digital Audio Formats of Today?

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Before we dive into exactly what Napster was, it helps to take a look at the different ways music storage was made commercially available to us — and how these audio formats evolved. Starting in the 1800s, if people wanted to own music, they purchased large discs made from hard rubber or shellac that were stamped with grooves to create vibrations that played songs. These were some of the earliest records people had access to. In the 1940s, manufacturers started making the discs from polyvinyl chloride, giving rise to the term “vinyl” in reference to record albums.

By the mid-1960s, electronics companies had figured out how to store music on magnetic tape spooled in plastic housings. Known as 8-track tapes, they enjoyed widespread use before slimming down to smaller cassette tapes in the 1980s. And these analog methods of playing music became near-extinct when compact discs (CDs) invaded record stores everywhere. After dominating the market as the music-storage format of choice for several decades, however, CDs, too, were eventually eclipsed. A new innovation was on the horizon — and we weren’t going to need physical storage methods like records, cassette tapes or CDs to access our favorite songs anymore.

When personal computers began to see more widespread use in the late 1980s and early 1990s, programmers developed methods of storing sound digitally to provide the audio on their software programs. Music industry executives also saw dollar signs in the decision to produce CD-ROMs that contained songs stored as digital Waveform Audio Files (WAV) on these discs. As with any technological advancement, users found ways to copy WAV files from their CDs and store those files on their computers. This meant someone could purchase an album on CD, copy the music to their computer and store it on the same device.

And this also meant people could share that music with family and friends. Like copying a cassette tape, the premise of making copies of songs or creating playlists to give to our high school love interests wasn’t exactly something new. But in the late 1990s, music sharing was set to go global when programmers Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker created an application to share digital song files among millions of users.

How Did P2P Programs Like Napster Work?

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Napster essentially pioneered P2P file-sharing clients. But what exactly does that mean? Users “ripped” WAV files from CDs, meaning they copied the digital sound files from CDs to programs on their computers and condensed that digital information into smaller files — what we now know as MP3s — that were more suitable for fast downloading. They then uploaded these MP3 files to Napster’s service, saving the files with the music artist’s name and the song title. By downloading Napster, users essentially joined a network that gave them access to the file libraries of everyone else who was also using Napster.

A user could operate Napster’s search function to look for a track name or artist, and the file names popped up in search results. After a quick double-click and a few minutes, the file downloaded to the user’s computer, where they could then transfer it to a portable media player like an iPod. The more people who downloaded the MP3, the faster the file downloaded — and the further it spread to new users without people having to purchase the actual albums the songs were officially available on.

Once someone had downloaded music files for free, they were able to do what they wanted with those files — technically speaking, but maybe not ethically so. And record labels and artists weren’t able to contain this widespread, illicit distribution of music, so they weren’t able to profit from it the way they expected to. Thus began the back-and-forth battle between record labels, artists and consumers on the ethics and legality of P2P file sharing.

Napster Fell Just as Quickly as It Rose

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At its peak, Napster had about 80 million registered users — a surprising number considering that the service was only operational from June 1999 to July 2001. And this massive popularity also quickly raised the ire of music industry professionals who were concerned about the loss of profits and uncontrolled distribution of their intellectual property.

In 2000, Metallica sued Napster and a few colleges, including USC, Yale and Indiana University, for encouraging students to copy songs. Drummer Lars Ulrich wasn’t shy with his criticisms of the service, saying, “It is sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is.” Even after facing fierce backlash from fans who thought the decision was purely financial, Ulrich’s stance didn’t waver. In a 2014 Reddit AMA, he wrote, “The whole thing was about one thing and one thing only — control… If I wanna give my s*** away for free, I’ll give it away for free. That choice was taken away from me.” Ulrich also appeared before Congress, accusing Napster of copyright infringement and testifying about its potential damages.

Dr. Dre, hip-hop pioneer and founder of Death Row Records, lost money as both an artist and a producer due to file-sharing on Napster. He filed a lawsuit in 2000 against Napster while leaving open the possibility of suing individual users. In a statement, Dr. Dre’s attorney Howard King was blunt: “If it turns out that there are people who have huge hard drives and actually are downloading copyrighted materials and transmitting [them] on the internet, we may very well go after them because they are engaged in theft.”

Napster eventually reached settlements with various artists, record labels and the Recording Industry Association of America and was ordered by a federal judge to block music from any artist who didn’t want it to be shared on the service. As a result of the litigation, Napster shut down its servers on July 11, 2001, and tried to transform into a paid service that never caught on.

Not All Artists Protested the Service

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Perhaps surprisingly, some music artists have cited Napster as a catalyst for their popularity, not a detractor, because it allowed many more people to discover their music. The folk/rock band Of A Revolution (O.A.R) became a nationwide success on college campuses with the song “Crazy Game of Poker.” The reason? “Napster led to what we can do today,” drummer Chris Culos told the Badger Herald. “Once people found out about the band [via Napster], they went back and supported us by buying records, coming to shows, or passing it on to their friends. In our case, Napster was huge.”

Several artists were thrilled at the innovative method Napster presented for reaching much broader audiences. Chris Cornell of bands Soundgarden and Audioslave said, “I think this aspect of technology is really going to bring a lot of different angles of life and commerciality out of the corporate world and give it back to the individuals.” According to AV Club, Napster was also responsible for turning Radiohead into “global superstars.” The English band had never had a top-20 hit in the U.S., but after their 2000 album Kid A made its way to Napster three months before its release date, millions of people began downloading it — and Kid A debuted at the number-one spot on the Billboard 200 sales chart.

The value of Napster as a potential promotional tool became part of its appeal in an increasingly divided industry. Even artists like David Bowie, Billy Corgan and Limp Bizkit happily adapted to the new method for sharing music across the globe. Napster represented an exciting new way for artists to reach fans, even if other established artists — and federal courts — didn’t share the sentiment.

The End of an Era: Napster’s Rebirth and Adaptation Fizzle Out With Fans

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Software company Roxio, which creates programs for burning CDs and DVDs, purchased Napster’s brand and logos in a bankruptcy auction soon after the shutdown in an attempt to re-brand another music service it bought, Pressplay, as Napster 2.0 — a paid version. Napster then changed hands again following electronics giant Best Buy’s purchase of the service before transferring once more to Rhapsody, one of the first streaming services to offer the monthly-subscription format that leaders like Spotify and Apple Music now follow.

In August 2020, Napster was again sold — this time to MelodyVR, a virtual reality concert platform. Throughout all these transformations and corporate transactions, users jumped ship, not knowing how the platform would change once more with each new sale or rebrand. Today, about 3 million people use Napster — a far fall from the 80 million users the service saw at its new-millennium peak.

Although the music industry won the battle against Napster, the war to stop free digital music sharing continues. BitTorrent, a similar P2P sharing platform, is now the most common method for sharing music, movies, books, computer software and other digital files. More than 170 million users are active on this platform, despite internet service providers’ frequent attempted crackdowns on users who break copyright infringement laws.

Today, many artists produce their music on home studio computers, host self-booked tours and promote themselves on social media, funding success without the backing of big record labels. Napster’s democratization of music potentially sparked the movement that freed artists to become independent of record labels in ways they couldn’t have anticipated 30 years ago. 

Other aspects of Napster may have been far ahead of their time, too. Remember those pesky digital files that led to Napster’s downfall? Many of today’s artists include free downloads of their albums with a vinyl record purchase, eliminating the need to download songs illegally to obtain digital copies. As The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan stated early on, “This revolution has already taken place” — but the music industry is undergoing continual revolutions even today. And Napster deserves credit for taking the risks that ultimately spurred this digital revolution.