Napster – 15 Years Later, Metallica Was Right?

As of tomorrow, April 13, 2015, fifteen years will have passed since Metallica’s now infamous lawsuit against the music streaming service, Napster.

In June of 1999, the peer-to-peer “sharing” service, Napster, appeared on the internet, facilitating the distribution of MP3 files (songs) across the internet with no money exchanging hands. For millions of music-lovers, Napster was the Shan-gri-la of the digital age. With a few clicks of a mouse, one could easily download an entire music collection comprised of tens of thousands of songs without spending a dime.

Not surprisingly, recording artists reacted… some of them in a big way. Napster enabled anyone to download music for free, effectively stealing art from the artists, something that didn’t sit well with established acts that had worked their way up through the ranks of rock, hip-hop, rap, pop, country, and more to become established musicians.

New acts and bands generally reacted favorably to Napster, seeing it as a way for potential fans to hear their music for the first time, but they didn’t really think about what would happen down the road, if they were to get a record deal… only to sell far fewer albums because everyone was getting it for free via Napster.

Metallica took a stand. They weren’t the only ones, (at the time Paul McCartney, U2 and Dr. Dre also objected to Napster), but Metallica was the musical artist that everyone would key in on as the act that destroyed Napster.

On April 13, 2000, as a result of their not-even-complete-yet single, “I Disappear,” showing up on Napster, Metallica filed a lawsuit against Napster and the internet exploded.

Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich made a statement about the lawsuit at the time to Rolling Stone.

“With each project, we go through a grueling creative process to achieve music that we feel is representative of Metallica at that very moment in our lives. We take our craft—whether it be the music, the lyrics, or the photos and artwork—very seriously, as do most artists. It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is.”

“From a business standpoint, this is about piracy—taking something that doesn’t belong to you; and that is morally and legally wrong. The trading of such information — whether it’s music, videos, photos, or whatever—is, in effect, trafficking in stolen goods.”

The primary complaints against Metallica’s lawsuit came from users of Napster who thought that Metallica – a band that the complainers remarked had millions and millions of dollars – were just being greedy and clamoring for more money. Perhaps at the base of it, however, users of Napster were just unhappy that their music shoplifting ways were about to come to an end.

Not all big-name artists agreed with Metallica. Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue released a statement decrying Metallica as “greedy hogs.”

“Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered, and I think Metallica’s hogs. They make enough off T-shirts and concert events and other forms of corporation. I think that it’s not acceptable behavior for an artist to do that to their fans. Elektra, Metallica’s management, they’re puppeteering the guys in Metallica and they’re f***ing their fans, and I think it’s f***ed.”

However, after 15 years and the almost total implosion of the record industry, was Metallica right? Can a garage band play venues religiously, paying their dues and collecting fans for half a dozen years, get seen by a recording studio rep, and sign a six-figure deal anymore? Nope. Perhaps if you do well on American Idol or one of the other music-factory network television shows, you’ll garner a large contract. However – though there are a handful of exceptions – in 2015, a garage band can forget about landing a big record studio deal, because the record companies don’t have the money to hand out… because no one is buying albums. Though Napster was deconstructed/transformed/sold, a thousand lookalikes broke onto the scene and are still well and alive today. An average 15 year-old tech-savvy teenager can give you at least 6 options of where you can download music for free.

The traditional business model of record companies employing musicians and making money is dead. And the death started with Napster.

The TV and film industry took note of Napster enabling music theft and took action to make sure that the same wouldn’t happen to them. Yes, there’s plenty of bit torrent sources that will get you the latest episode of Game of Thrones, et al. But the movie studios and TV networks took steps to encode their releases so that they’re harder to copy, as well as initiated a hearty informational and legal campaign to prosecute those that steal their works.

And the film and television industries (well, cable anyway) continue to thrive.

So, at the end of the day, was Metallica right? What do you think?

[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]