The Record Business: Napster
If you were a college kid and everyone was talking about a new way of getting free music on your computer would you think: “No I’m not going to do that, how are the bands going to make any money?” Hell no. Are you kidding, I’d be all over it.
For this early generation of Internet users Napster was like finding a bag full of money in the trunk of your car. Students loved the idea of free music and were surrounded by friends who would gladly show them how to use it. Most young people saw nothing wrong in downloading songs for free from Napster . Many believed that they were simply sharing the music; to them stealing a CD and downloading songs for free were totally unrelated.
On the surface it made sense. The record labels are perceived by many as corporate gate keepers, controlling who got a shot at stardom and they were greedy, keeping most of the money their artists earned. Now, piracy was going to give every band a shot at stardom and create opportunities for all musician to get exposure and find new ways to make money. They didn’t see it as stealing, they mistakenly believed they were actually helping new bands.
Things were happening so fast that Napster’s founder, Shawn Fanning, was being celebrated as a visionary of sorts, a liberator of music. Even the mainstream media didn’t know what to make of of Fanning or Napster. He ended up on the cover of Time Magazine and was a presenter at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2000.
But it wasn’t just the media that didn’t know how to react to Napster. When Lars Ulrich of Metallica learned of Napster he scoured the site for his bands songs. Ulrich found all of Metallica’s songs available as free downloads. He also found an unreleased, unfinished track, “I Disappear” from the upcoming Mission Impossible II soundtrack. He went ballistic.
Not only did Metallica sue Napster, But Ulrich and Roger McGuinn, one of the founders of the Byrds, spoke before Congress about Napster’s unauthorized abuse of Copyrighted Songs. Reading the fifteen year old transcripts of Ulrich’s testimony before Congress is nothing less than a revelation:
“We have to find a way to welcome the technological advances and cost-savings of the Internet. However, this must be done without destroying the artistic diversity and the international success that has made our intellectual property industries the greatest in the world. Allowing our copyright protection to deteriorate is, in my view, bad policy both economically and artistically.”
The response to Ulrich from the pirate community was so vitriolic and mean-spirited against this successful, wealthy artist it is still burnished into people’s memories today, especially musicians. It was as if we were in Roman times and someone stuck Ulrich’s’ head on a spike just outside the Los Angeles city limits with a sign that said “If you’re a musician and speak out for your rights, this is what’s going to happen to you.”
Ultimately, many of Metallica’s fans would turn against them and fellow musicians took notice. Every time an artist would speak out against piracy the negative backlash would be so intense that artists became afraid to say anything, lest their fans turn on them.
After just two years, Napster was ordered to shut down on July 27, 2001 :
“A federal judge in San Francisco shut down the popular music swapping Web site — saying the online company encourages ‘wholesale infringement’ against music industry copyrights. U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel noted that 70 million people are expected to be using Napster by year’s end unless the service is halted.” ABC News.
But shutting down Napster wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning:
”What Napster has really done is educated the marketplace that this is a great application, and this is how people would like to hear music in the future,” said Gene Hoffman of eMusic, a Redwood City, Calif.-based company that makes unlimited music available for a fee.
Mr Hoffman was right. The impact of piracy on the Internet has been seismic and while the attorneys from the music industry found a way to shut Napster down in 2001, the Internet would soon become awash with piracy.
The eerie silence that followed for the next decade from the creative community would be seen as a victory for piracy. After all, it was just the RIAA and corporate America trying to end piracy in the courts and it played right into their hands.
Next: Online Piracy.