ASCII by Jason Scott

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Napster: Did You Forget? —

I figured I’d take a moment for this little reminder.

Napster was great. My friend Deth Veggie of Cult of the Dead cow pinged me in an e-mail and told me I had to download this Napster thing and try it out. This was 1999, when it wasn’t all that known. I thought it was pretty darn neat. I liked how it felt like a FTP server, but also had a chat aspect, and people were spreading stuff around, allowing them to either talk with others while downloading, or just sit there and pull down MP3s. The downloads were single threaded, but I certainly didn’t notice at the time; I thought it was great you could browse through others’ collections, like sifting through their records or cassettes while at a party, but you’d get to take everything home. I really did think it was something special.

There’s a book out there, All the Rave, that purports to cover a lot of the Napster story, from Shawn Fanning’s birth through to the final breakup and sale of the Napster company. I read it and feel it’s probably mostly accurate. It certainly feels right, and has a good amount of sources. If someone has a conflicting recounting of tales, I’d like to hear it.

The central thesis, however, is this: the Napster company, once it was incorporated and flying around in earnest, was designed to be a buyout target for any record or media company suitor, selling over the technology and “flipping” the company as quickly and as profitably as possible (and this is important), while providing copyrighted content for free. Beyond that, when the timing started to shift, the deal fell apart, but barely so; record companies really were going to reward the Napster executives with substantial amounts of cash in return for having facilitated the duplication of hundreds of thousands of music tracks.

Peer to Peer, itself, is rather fascinating and I should go into some depth about its ramifications and meanings and so on in the future. I want, however, to focus on one little point.

Without a doubt, without a doubt, Napster was working hard to make money off the backs of recording artists. Tell yourself it was great tech (and it was) and it introduced people to genres of music they hadn’t heard before (and it did) and that it was an amazing moment in time when all of us were combined into a throbbing god-head of sonic sharing and intimacy (and we were). Let yourself be told, as we’ve been told in the last 9 years, about how evil the music industry is (and it is) and how poorly it treats many artists under its purview over the decades (and it has). No questioning here, no rebuttal to these plain and simple facts.

But when the members of Metallica, unaware of the full technology and forces at work, used to doing things its own way, stood up and spoke out against this wholesale smash and grab, when they flailed about trying to find support for what they were saying about having their music being used to forward a business plan without any compensation going to them, they were pilloried. Yes, I’m fucking defending Metallica.

Metallica were one of the rare pop-culture bands who owned their own master tapes (Frank Zappa did as well, after a lengthy legal battle or two). This was a hard-won situation for them, with a lot of fighting behind the scenes, a lot of threats, and decades of nasty attacks from an industry ostensibly designed to support artists like them. They were a mighty bitter group, used to standing up for themselves, when nobody else would. They’d earned this money for their families, and expected to reap the rewards for a long time.

Suddenly, Napster arrives, and all these songs they’d fought dearly to have the right to sell were flying out the door, while a company leveraged their music to build up their own sale value.

I’d be pissed; wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you wonder what you could do? And what if every person you talk to has almost no clue about how to legally deal with this situation, what it means, who’s really behind it? How do you even seek recompense and halt this action, when there’s simply no precedent in the court to even describe what’s going on?

I’ve grown tired, in my old age, of the cry of the person who thinks that copying something, by its very act, benefits the copied and the copier. Sometimes this is the case. Sometimes it is not the case. It is not a by-default awesome act that you duped something that is available for sale and did not pay anyone. The only way that comes to mind that it’s by default awesome is if, generally, you have embraced your inner pirate. Bootleg, who was one of my more energetic interviewees is known for embracing his inner pirate way back when; I have corroborating stories that when he hosted Apple II copy parties at his house in the early 1980s, he’d supply lots of beer and dress up as a pirate, fake parrot and eye patch and all. That’s embracing your inner pirate. Bootleg never sat around talking about functioning as some sort of honeybee cross-polinating ideas for the tangential benefit of content creators.

Yet I still run into this, this idea that the very act of not paying for something is itself heroic, while simultaneously acknowledging that some level of copyright/patent law is valid. Choose one, blackbeard. Stop trying to play both sides and act like you’re a statesman enmeshed in the delicate negotiations of the weight of the future. Download your free shit and go.

At the time, Metallica had no pillowy mounds of mashed-up content jiggery to convince them that Napster hoisting off copies of their stuff was a good thing. It wasn’t a good thing. So they threatened, and got on the air and gave interviews, and tried to raise awareness of all this going on. They were totally in the dark, truly musicians trying to function in the legal realm, and like many bands, they had precious little experience in such ephemeral spheres. We are still coming to terms with this issue, and they were hip-deep in it, feeling their livelihoods were at stake.

To this day, the fact that they spoke up, said this was wrong, and lashed about trying to find some way to stop this, is held up as some sort of victory on the part of downloaders. Metallica is, to this day, criticized and satirized for standing up for what they believed in, and looking back, I just can’t see where they had many options. Told they’d have to list which users were using Napster illegally, they did just that, delivering reams of names of people sharing the song. Hamstrung in court, proving racketeering charges (and make no mistake, Napster well and truly was a racketeering organization) and made out to be some sort of evil presence. What a terrible nightmare for them; what a shame.

This is just 9 years ago; what will people say happened back then in another 11?

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  1. Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable says:

    Interesting… does that book mention how Napster used to hang out in #cDc getting coding advice from SirDystic? I have to say that in my recollection, I certainly didn’t get the impression that Shawn was trying to create this as a pure money-making operation, at least not initially. It was, if anything, an idealistic experiment, or at, worst, a mischevious one. As I recall, it was more a way of ‘I want to make something that would allow me and my friends to share music’ and only later did the ‘Hey, we could make money off this’ come in to it.

  2. Paul says:

    I agree with your criticism of Napster the company for it being essentially a company primarily formed in the hopes of extorting the record companies into buying it.

    I’m in less agreement about Metallica, and its position on Napster. My problem with Metallica is that the band, and Lars Ulrich in particular, were being somewhat hypocritical in their stance against Napster. Ulrich and Hetfield had acknowledged many times that their early inspirations were a lot of obscure British and European metal bands who they first heard by virtue of tape trading networks, in which they participated. Tape trading, for all intents and purposes, is the analog snail mail precursor to Napster.

    I’m certain that tape traders in the early 80s made the same arguments that Napster fans made in the late 90s, that they were spreading culture and doing the traded bands a favor. And I don’t doubt that many of those bands were glad to have their albums copied and sent to the US, just as some bands have embraced file sharing. But I would not argue that ALL bands appreciated having their recordings shared in this manner.

    It’s admittedly small point, but one I feel should be acknowledged. Nevertheless, I think that Metallica has actually redeemed itself rather well over the years by offering free live recordings on its website and otherwise embracing nonprofit sharing. And I do concur with the aspect of Metallica’s anti-Napster stance that objected to the for-profit nature of Napster the company.

  3. Church says:

    It’s quite simple, really. Copying stuff in the real world is hard (to various degrees of hard.) Copying stuff on the ‘net is easy.

    Moreover, it’s *essential.* You can’t communicate on the ‘net without copying, and you can’t control copying on the net without controlling communication..

    Metallica was fighting the last war. I have some sympathy for them, but not for what they wanted to bring about.