Will We Ever Feel Nostalgia For The Download Age?

Its creators boasted of helping people share (ie steal) three billion songs a month – but now it seems file-sharing site Limewire is doomed. A message on the homepage reads: “This is an official notice that LimeWire is under a court-ordered injunction to stop distributing and supporting its filesharing software. Downloading or sharing copyrighted content without authorisation is illegal.”

Case closed, right? Don’t bet on it. Limewire’s CEO insists the site “remains open for business”. Peer-to-peer platforms operate in such a legally murky area, it’s notoriously difficult to shut them down for good. TV Shack got banned by the US authorities – so it moved off-shore and kept right on doing its thing.

Likewise, The Pirate Bay’s founders were fined and sent to prison, but the site is still going strong.

And yet, if The System can’t kill music piracy, our listening habits probably will. The age of mass file-sharing is coming to an end. When you can stream almost any track via Spotify, who can be arsed with the messiness of peer-to-peer – the pop-ups, the malware, the dubious sound quality.

Will we ever miss it? I think we will, actually. Limewire’s death comes in the week everyone got misty-eyed with nostalgia for the Sony Walkman. This is an extension of the cassette revival thing that’s been burbling away in hipster circles for the past year or so. The movement has become a flypaper for all sorts of ideas about authenticity in music, with the cassette as an emblem of what we lost in the digital revolution.

The implication is that there’s nothing worth cherishing about download culture. But I’m not so sure. I reckon in ten years’ time, when MP3s are dead and no-one owns music because it’s all in the cloud, there’ll be a nostalgic cult around peer-to-peer sites like Limewire and Audiogalaxy.

People romanticise cassettes because they represented the first time music lovers could bypass record labels – home-taping felt like a seditious activity, one which the industry made a futile attempt to stamp out.

But file-sharing is the same: at the time, it felt like a revolutionary act. These days Sean Parker, who co-founded Napster, describes his achievement in heroic, martial terms – he calls himself an “anti-imperialist avenger”. And it’s ludicrous, but you can see how it must have seemed like that back then: Napster was essentially a piece of code that ripped down the perceived value of an album from £16 to zero, at a stroke.

The firestorm that followed was enormously damaging to the industry, and ultimately harmed artists. But it empowered listeners. The advent of downloading was a profound and unprecedented pivot-point in popular culture. Thanks to file-sharing, the labels lost control of their product, enabling a free-for-all that lasted a decade. One day we’ll look back on that mad period with astonishment, and some affection.