The Case Heard Round the Internet
We’re lucky to be living in this time of music accessibility. Listening to music now is easier than ever before with streaming sites like Spotify, Pandora, and Soundcloud putting thousands of artists and millions of songs at the tip of our fingers for free.
Back in the late 90’s, however, we didn’t have much in the way of downloading and streaming music. That is, until Napster came onto the scene in 1999, and brought with it a new millennium of turmoil for the music industry.
Napster was one of the first music sharing services to gain traction in the early days of high-speed Internet. It allowed users to share MP3 files across the internet, also known as peer-to-peer sharing. On the one hand, it was a fantastic way for people, particularly college students, to find and download music across a variety of genres. On the other hand, the main conceit of the service was a copyright nightmare. It was fundamentally a means to share pirated music and flouted intellectual property laws.
Thrash metal band Metallica, most notably drummer Lars Ulrich, noticed that their newest single at the time (“I Disappear” for the Mission Impossible 2 soundtrack) was circulating on Napster months before its intended release. Metallica decided to sue Napster in March 2000, less than a year after its public release, igniting a flashpoint in the conflict between the music industry and the internet that still reverberates today.
Metallica was the first big musical act to legally challenge Napster—and, by extension, the nascent internet music sharing ecosystem. Eventually, Dr. Dre, Madonna and even the Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster over their misuse of copyright. Eventually, universities began to restrict their services as well. Some artists jumped to the defense of Napster, including Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Limp Bizkit (remember them?). They argued that the service helped promote new music and provided a means for artists to get recognition without access to radio or television play.
However, Napster had a clear misuse and misunderstanding of intellectual property, and the avalanche of lawsuits eventually led the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to shut Napster down in July 2001.
Metallica was ultimately successful in protecting their IP and shutting down Napster. But, by leading the crusade against free music, Metallica came to embody “the man” in the eyes of their devoted metalhead following.
Arguing in their defense, Ulrich said their music was a craft that they take time and effort to make and claimed it was being treated as a commodity rather than as art—as if forcing people to pay for it somehow de-commodified it. Ulrich and the rest of Metallica took the issue a step further by demanding Napster block over 300,000 users—again, mostly college students—who had allegedly downloaded their music. Regardless of their stance on the issue, this was a personal slap in the face to many of their fans (and it would eventually be followed by the release of “St. Anger,” an album which in and of itself is a slap in the face to music in general). The whole episode was a turning point for the band, and not in a good way. As Ulrich told HuffPost in 2013, “We weren’t quite prepared for the shitstorm that we became engulfed in.”
It has now been 17 years since the original suit. In the interim, dozens of other P2P services have come and gone (Remember LimeWire?). Napster introduced a generation to the concept of free music, and in the years since, services like Pandora and Spotify have emerged to meet that demand, and have done quite well as a result. Spotify just went public, and last year drew 159 million users to its service, the majority of which used the free version.
While people still pirate music, streaming services—namely, Spotify—generate most of the music industry’s legal controversy these days. For example, streaming services legally require several licenses for performance rights and mechanical licenses for music, but Spotify has fought against the use of these mechanical fees in the past and been sued. This past January, Spotify was sued for not paying mechanical fees for artists like Weezer, Rage Against the Machine, and Tom Petty.
Other artists have been more proactive in their resistance. Jay Z started his own streaming service in Tidal, which notably favored the intellectual properties of artists—though, it is more expensive and doesn’t offer a free version. Thus, fewer people are on board.
Ironically, the idea of a “sellout” in music seems to have vanished. When artists like Taylor Swift complain about Spotify not paying artists enough, their arguments parrot those that Metallica used. Though, few would point to an artist today and call them a sellout for demanding fair compensation for their music. Perhaps this is the result of a less-economically endowed generation sympathizing with fellow millennials just trying to make a living.
As for Metallica? Their reputation never really recovered after the Napster fiasco. In the eyes of many of their older fans, they sold out hard. To a newer generation used to getting music from the internet, Metallica became a band that was socially and technologically behind the times; the equivalent of the old man screaming about how much better things were back in the day. And for ardent metalheads, the Napster case was the last straw. Metallica had already abandoned their towering thrash metal that defined the genre in the 80s for a softer, more hard-rock sound during the mid-90’s.
It also didn’t help that Metallica’s 2003 album “St. Anger,” was an abomination of an album, with stale, headache-inducing drumming and laughably cringy lyrics. “I’m madly in anger with you!/ I’m madly in anger with you!” singer James Hetfield croons on the title track.
Ironically, Metallica’s entire catalogue is now on Spotify. More ironically still, Napster isn’t gone either. It was acquired by Best Buy and merged with Rhapsody in 2016. And yes, you can listen to Metallica there, too.