Napster is 10 years old this week. Launched on June 1, 1999, the illegal download site was sued into near-oblivion two years later – but the digital music revolution it unleashed has since brought a once-mighty recording industry to its knees. Although, like a slow-release poison gradually flooding the bloodstream, perhaps what’s surprising is just how long it’s taken for the victim to die.
What is Napster’s legacy? In pure business terms, you could argue its influence has been negligible. Napster popularised the act of downloading. Steve Jobs and Apple were the ones who monetized it, via iTunes and the iPod. But the site’s impact on broader attitudes, in particular, the perceived value of recorded music, has been immense – and mostly pernicious.
Founder Shawn Fanning’s anti-corporate, student-friendly rhetoric – his goal, famously, was “to take down the record industry and give away free stuff!” – gave a legitimacy to freeloading, making anyone with a modem think they were slaying old-media Goliaths, rather than – as was more usually the case – swerving copyright and depriving struggling bands of potential income.
This tendency reached its ugly apogee with The Pirate Bay, whose founders presented themselves as Robin Hood-style libertarians (a public image which, I admit, initially had me fooled), as opposed to what we now know them to be: a bunch of self-promoting berks with highly unsavoury politics.
Napster’s epic legal battles stoked the great myth about major labels – namely, that they’re all staffed by cigar-chomping hyper-capitalists with raging coke habits. Admittedly, the industry used to be awash with cash. A friend of mine once processed expense claims filed by A&R execs at Parlophone – this was in 2004 – and they made today’s MPs look like rank amateurs. This was on top of sky-high pay. Top brass were on Fred Goodwin-level salaries, high six-figures.
If the digital revolution meant curbing such mad excesses, few would complain. But those Masters Of The Universe represented only a tiny fraction of the industry. At the other end of the food chain, NME journalists speak to up-and-coming musicians day-in day-out – and the impact of illegal downloading on them is stark and depressing. Simply put, being in a middle-level indie band with a record deal used to pay the bills. Now it doesn’t.
In his book ‘Appetite For Destruction: The Spectacular Crash Of The Record Industry In The Digital Age’, Steve Knopper accuses record labels of a catastrophic lack of foresight. If they’d reached a profit-sharing deal with Napster in 2000, he argues, they would now be richer to the tune of billions. True, but which executive in his right mind would willingly swap a hugely profitable business model – selling CDs – for one offering a fraction of the return?
And yet, examining the wreckage of today’s music industry, you wonder if Napster’s seemingly colossal influence will turn out to be a mere blip, a staging post in a wider shift. The service depended on transferable digital files. Ultimately it was still about ownership, music as a commodity. Post-YouTube, LastFM and Spotify, that’s no longer true. Increasingly we don’t download. We stream. As CD sales plummet, live receipts rocket. Music is now something we experience, rather than own.
And one day very soon we’ll all be streaming tracks limitlessly on our mobiles. Music won’t be a commodity so much as a utility (“like running water or electricity”, predicted David Bowie in 2002). Blu-Ray will almost certainly be the entertainment industry’s last physical format. The act of downloading will soon seem quaint. Is it going too far to predict that in ten years time we’ll be hailing Spotify, and Napster will be a footnote?