Napster: Circuit of Culture
From its inception in May 1999 to its implosion in July 2001, Napster was the talk of the town. A peer-to-peer (P2P) music file sharing service, Napster’s users could freely obtain and exchange music. There was nothing like it at the time, and its initial user base of college students and tech enthusiasts soon came to include people from all walks of life, and lots of them. At its peak, Napster had amassed upwards of 25 million users. Shawn Fanning, who began developing the application in college while he was still a teenager, had created something that would change how people consumed music. The online sharing and discovery of music first popularized by Napster produced numerous successor music streaming services such as Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Music, even though the version of Napster that spawned those possibilities no longer exists.
The Napster website itself was nothing special – just a simple landing page that allowed people to download the Napster software, with some accompanying information about the application. Once the user downloaded the Napster client onto their system, downloading a song involved the following steps (cited from “How the Old Napster Worked” on HowStuffWorks):
- You opened the Napster utility.
- Napster checked for an Internet connection.
- If it found a connection, Napster logged you onto the central server. The main purpose of this central server was to keep an index of all the Napster users currently online and connect them to each other. It did not contain any of the MP3 files.
- You typed in the title or artist of the song you were looking for.
- The Napster utility on your computer queried the index server for other Napster computers online that had the song you requested.
- Whenever a match was found, the Napster server informed your computer where to find the requested file.
- When the server replied, Napster built a list of these systems in the results window.
- You clicked on the file(s) that interested you and then chose Download.
- Your copy of Napster attempted to establish a connection with the system hosting the file you selected.
- If a connection was successfully made, the file began downloading.
- Once the file was downloaded, the host computer broke the connection with your system.
- You opened up your MP3 player software and listened to the song.
Today, Napster has pivoted to become a subscription music service under new ownership (Rhapsody), offering similar features to Spotify and its other music streaming competitors. However, this circuit-of-culture analysis will focus on the original Napster application, circa 2000.
The Napster website itself was simply a location from which users can download the Napster application to their computer. There is some background information about the application and any recent updates made to it, but little else. Later, after company came under the siege of copyright infringement lawsuits, the main page of the site featured positive quotes from musicians about Napster, recent news about the application, and a call for users to speak out in support of Napster during their ongoing legal battles.
Note that Napster’s logo was a cat wearing headphones – the design underwent small changes over time, but the outline always remained the same. The headphones were an obvious nod to the users of Napster, who presumably used headphones to listen to the music they downloaded using the platform. The cat, according to Napster’s former head of marketing Elizabeth Brooks, was intended “partly as a response to Lycos [an MP3 search competitor] using a dog in their advertising at the time” (Estes). It’s possible, too, that the cat represented the slightly mischievous nature of the application in light of the panic it would go on to cause the recording industry.
Another interesting part of how Napster was represented to the world was its appearance in the press. As Guzman and Jones, authors of Napster and the press: Framing music technology, put it: “the music press largely ignored Napster while mainstream news sources covered the service extensively, framing Napster as a simultaneously ingenious and nefarious technology that was spurring a cultural and economic revolution.” Newspapers covered the court case drama, TIME Magazine did a feature article and interview with Napster creator Shawn Fanning, and other media outlets even “positioned Napster as fighting a larger, cultural battle against high costs and barriers to accessing music.” Napster’s popularity and abundant media coverage could be said to have driven some people to use the internet for the first time.
Napster appealed to people who identified as music lovers and were technologically competent enough to find, install, and use the application. In addition, Napster users were encouraged to contribute to the service by sharing their music catalogues with the client and allowing other users to download that music through Napster. The more users that shared a particular piece of music, the faster the download speeds. As such, the users of Napster formed a cooperative online community in the spirit of breaking down barriers to acquiring digital music. Building on its idea of community, Napster added a chatroom feature to not only help users engage with each other on the platform, but also to give users a reason to remain logged in with their music libraries available for longer periods of time.
In a New York Times article published in July of 2000, Study Says That Napster Increases Music Sales, study analyst Aram Sinnreich claimed, “Because Napster users are music enthusiasts, it’s logical to believe that they are more likely … to increase their music spending in the future. We still found [when conducting the consumer survey] that Napster usage is one of the strongest determinants of increased music buying.” Some Napster users likely identified with the “hacker” label implied by the record companies, but many others, particularly those who were newer to the internet, did not think of themselves as pirates or lawbreakers. If there was a legal alternative to obtain songs in a digital format so conveniently, they would have paid for it, but there wasn’t.
Unsurprisingly, users approached Napster as consumers of music. Napster offered ways for its users to acquire free digital music files from other users, rather than scouring the internet for painfully slow download links to MP3 files that may or may not have been functional or safe. At the time, people had to buy physical music in the form of albums, which might have contained multiple songs that the purchaser did not enjoy. Through Napster, a user could listen to the singular song that they liked on a particular album without paying for 11 other songs that they had no desire to listen to. In other words, Napster facilitated an alternative way of consuming music.
Suppose albums cost $15 and that Jim and Susan each attach at value of $8 to a particular album. Alone, neither of them purchases the album, but if they form a music-sharing club, they are together willing to buy things they would not purchase alone.Joel Waldfogel, from “Music Piracy and Its Effects on Demand, Supply, and Welfare” in Innovation Policy and the Economy, Vol. 12
This is the type of interaction that Napster enabled between strangers, and is what the company touted amongst the backlash from record companies and artists. As Waldfogel says, “consumers need to become aware of music to be interested in purchasing it,” and consumers increasingly turn to the web to discover new music (as opposed to radio, which was previously the primary avenue of music promotion that record companies invested in.) In theory, someone who found a new song that they liked through Napster could go on to become a new fan of the artist who produced it, and might even buy albums or attend their concerts. The Napster system might not have been the most well-suited to the discovery process compared to today’s offerings, but it was the precursor to those applications.
Napster was built on the premise that users would voluntarily share music with each other, meaning that users were both consumers and (in a way) producers of Napster’s content. Of course, the production started with the musicians who created the music being shared in the first place, but without users sharing their music files, Napster would offer no content. What the Napster application actually produced on its own was a framework for users to download files directly from other users’ computers, nothing more.
Funnily enough, Napster’s meteoric rise and fall inspired the production of articles, books, documentaries, and even songs, decades after it had already come and gone. The most well-known song to have been written about the new status quo set by Napster is folk singer-songwriter Gillian Welch’s Everything Is Free from 2001 – that song’s popularity has outlived Napster by more than 20 years. Numerous folk and indie rock artists have covered the song in the past few years, leading to its recent resurgence – listen to its creator perform it live in the video below.
In a 2018 Rolling Stone interview with Welch, after being asked what spurred the song’s writing, she said, “I had read some piece of news that had to do with Napster — that was the catalyst. I don’t want to pin it down and say the song was about Napster, it wasn’t. It’s about feeling like my personal creative independence was threatened… We were out of our record deal. Everything was collapsing.” Welch’s response reflects the fear that many working musicians felt at the time when Napster was at the forefront of the news, facing the uncertainty of whether making music would continue to be a way of making a living.
In the time that has passed since Napster’s entrance, the costs of producing and distributing music have decreased. Personal computer software is now available to provide home studio recording and mixing capabilities that previously could only be achieved through expensive equipment. The popularity of electronic music distribution has made music distribution easier and less expensive with the availability of software and services to help independent artists put their music on digital music stores and on music streaming services. This is a boon to independent record labels and independent artists, which have generally fared better than major labels in an era of lower overall album sales, making a profit on selling fewer copies of an album due to lower operating costs. Now, in an age dominated by music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, the problems and benefits of the music industry remain largely the same as they were when Napster disrupted the scene.
Perhaps the most famous aspect of Napster was its fraught relationship with legality, particularly two court cases in 2000 and 2001. First there was A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc, in which the Recording Industry of America (RIAA) sued Napster for copyright infringement. This was followed by the first U.S. court case where an artist sued a peer-to-peer service, Metallica v. Napster, Inc., bringing a lawsuit against the company for copyright infringement after a Metallica demo track was leaked using Napster. In both cases, the court ruled against Napster, leading to the company shutting down in mid-2001.
The main problem that Napster faced in responding to these court rulings was that the service was unable to successfully block all copyrighted content as ordered. Even with upgrades to their technology for this purpose, Napster could not regulate its users with 100% effectiveness, and 99% was not a good enough demonstration for its opponents. As a result, Napster died.
Even before this, Napster’s regulation of content quality left something to be desired. Users complained about a lack of “guaranteed file quality and virus protection” on Napster, according to Sinnreich. Added to the enormous bandwidth consumption of Napster music downloads, causing college campuses to ban the application to protect their networks from being overloaded by college students using the software, Napster already wrestled with its own inherent unruliness.
Boorstein, E. S. (2004). Music Sales in the Age of File Sharing. Princeton University Department of Economics. https://www.cs.princeton.edu/~felten/boorstin-thesis.pdf
Bernstein, J. (2018, September 19). Gillian Welch on How ‘Everything Is Free’ Became a Modern Classic in the Streaming Era. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/gillian-welch-everything-is-free-courtney-barnett-father-john-misty-725135/
Estes, A. C. (October 3, 2011). Say Goodbye to Napster’s Kitty Logo. The Atlantic. https://news.yahoo.com/goodbye-napsters-kitty-logo-224205372.html
Greenfeld, K. T. (2000, September 24). Meet the Napster. TIME.com. https://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,55730,00.html
Guzman, A. L., & Jones, S. (2014). Napster and the press: Framing music technology. First Monday, 19(10). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i10.5545
Tyson, J. “How the Old Napster Worked,” HowStuffWorks. Retrieved November 24, 2023, from http://computer.howstuffworks.com/napster.htm
Study Says That Napster Increases Music Sales. (2000, July 21). The New York Times. Retrieved November 9, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/21/technology/study-says-that-napster-increases-music-sales.html
Waldfogel, J. (2012). Music piracy and its effects on demand, supply, and welfare. Innovation Policy and the Economy, 12, 91–110. https://doi.org/10.1086/663157