I came across this fascinating New York Times documentary short, an expose on the rise and fall of Napster, the peer-to-peer network that hailed the arrival of free music. In 1998 an eighteen year-old Shawn Fanning gave birth to the initial seed of a file-sharing platform in his dorm room. Excited at the prospect, the freshman dropped out of college to create a beta-version with his online accomplice Sean Parker.
As it spread like wildfire through online chatrooms, Fanning and Parker made their way to the Bay Area to try and source interest from angel investors. The program was incredibly intuitive, allowing anyone the ability to access music files stored on the hard drives of fellow Napster users.
At its height the platform had over 70 million users and while the company’s run was short-lived, struck down by court injunctions, the battle had only just begun. Much like the mythical Hydra, cutting off one head only resulted in two more taking its place. New file-share services such as Morpheus, Limewire and Kazaa (my personal favourite) filled the vacuum and fed the growing appetite of music lovers everywhere.
The industry went into a state of panic. “Desperate to stem the tide, the labels upped the stakes and sued almost 20,000 people for using illegally downloaded software.” Such measures were a drop in the bucket, failing to counter falling CD revenues and resulting in shuttered store fronts nationwide.
As former Universal executive Albhy Galuten explains; “We didn’t really factor in the consumer adoption, the youthful lack of respect for copyright and the anonymity would combine to make it pretty unstoppable as a model.”
In the face of this uprising, the major labels reluctantly swallowed Steve Jobs’ persistent badgering and collectively agreed to share their back catalogues with the iTunes store, the first online music store of its kind.
I remember being intently curious with these torrent based services as a teenager. Just like the first Napster users, I was an avid-music lover and had grandiose dreams of accumulating a hard drive that would give a record store a run for its money.
It’s funny to think about it now but the idea of privacy never crossed my mind. Sure I had my fair share of viruses over the years but you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Ali Aydar, Napster’s former head of programming was right. Music was all that mattered. Everything else was just noise.