“Fans of the MP3 digital audio format will be interested in Napster. This software supports a virtual community and search engine that makes it a good way to find MP3 files and associated resources. In addition, the software also lets you download and play MP3 files combining almost all the functions you need in a single application.” Newsbytes July 23, 1999
On March 16, 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the trade organization that supports the major music companies, introduced a new certification level for record sales. The RIAA already awarded Gold records to albums that sold more than 500,000 copies and Platinum records to sales over one million, but the new “Diamond” certification was conferred upon albums that sold more than 10 million copies. The new distinction made sense – the $13.8 billion record industry was growing ever bigger, with Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and Santana moving so many units that a higher classification of “hit” record was necessary.
Not long after the Diamond classification was introduced, however, record sales began to slow down, and it’s easy to see a steep drop-off in the number of Diamond certified albums released after 1999. There’s another Britney album, two Eminem albums, Shania Twain, and, inexplicably, Linkin Park, but the list ends there. While most of the years prior to 2000 feature several albums that achieved Diamond status, 2003 and 2004 have just one each - OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and Usher’s Confessions, respectively. There have been none since.
So what happened? Besides the fact that musical tastes had changed - we were no longer living in a world where a Garth Brooks double-live album was going to sell 21 million copies – the answer lies squarely in the tech boom. 40 percent of Americans had internet access in 1999, and the most frequent users were young people. A 1999 AOL/Roper Starch study of 500 children between the ages of 9 and 17 found that “63 percent of the youth surveyed would rather surf the Web than watch television, while 55 percent prefer being on the Web to being on the telephone.” This explosion of internet use was especially prevalent among college students. A 1994 University of Michigan study said that more than 18 percent of its students were spending 20-30 hours a week online. By 1999 that number had doubled. Many schools, including the University of Maryland, began to offer counseling for a newly coined condition called “internet addiction.”
While many college students were simply using the internet for research instead of venturing to the campus library, others strove to use it as a social medium rather than a repository of information. One such person was 18 year-old Shawn Fanning, a freshman at Northeastern University in Boston. Fanning wanted to find a way to share music online with a friend living in another state.
It wasn’t that difficult. A new compression technology was available that converted regular CD recordings into MPEG Audio Layer 3, or MP3 files, which were one-tenth the size. It allowed for speedy downloading even with dial-up access, and, most importantly, the quality didn’t suffer as a result of the compression. Initially record companies weren’t concerned about the conversion. In a 1997 USA Today article, a Geffen Records executive noted that he "doesn't see MPEG as a problem. We like anything that increases the ability of consumers to listen to high-quality music, and if that means on their computer, that's fine, too.”
Fanning created his own file-sharing application and gave it his childhood nickname, Napster. The concept was simple; it allowed you to share your digitized music files with anyone, as long as they had a username and password. You simply entered the music you wanted to hear in a search bar, and Napster would scour the list of shared files and find it for you, often from multiple sources. Fanning launched the site in June of 1999 and had 25 subscribers almost instantly. As news of the technology spread across college campuses (most students read about it on the internet) it quickly blossomed and by year’s end had more than two million users. Fanning was thrilled.
The RIAA, on the other hand, was not having a good summer. They had spent most of it writing letters to college campuses and encouraging them to crack down on MP3 swapping on their university intranets. (It’s worth noting that in those days “punishment” for file sharing entailed little more than revoked internet access privileges and the occasional assignment to write an essay about copyright law.) Those were usually infractions of just a few songs; before long, however, Napster had a library that was, according to the Providence Journal Bulletin, “staggering.” The article noted that as of November 29, 1999, “there were about 1,800 libraries of music, totaling about 900 gigabytes of disk space.” (Just a few years later you could fit roughly the same amount of music on five iPods.) The RIAA wasn’t laughing, and the record companies ditched their rosy view of file sharing and urged them to take action.
On December 7, 1999, the RIAA sued Napster. RIAA general counsel Cary Sherman claimed that “Napster is about facilitating piracy, and trying to build a business on the backs of artists and copyright owners.” Sean Combs lashed out at the site for leaking the new Notorious B.I.G. album. Scott Stapp of Creed claimed Napster was “sneaking in the back door and robbing me blind.”
It didn’t help that Napster kept changing their story. Initially their response was that they existed to facilitate peer-to-peer sharing; they were simply a network for connecting computers. This despite a clear note on their website that declared “Napster virtually guarantees you'll find the music you want, when you want it. You can forget wading through page after page of unknown artists.” They then claimed their service was meant for helping up-and-coming artists, and that users were strictly warned not to share copyrighted material. If a few bad eggs were messing that up, it wasn’t their fault. (Not an altogether different argument than Reddit executives make today.) When asked if there was illegal material on the site, Napster CEO Eileen Richardson simply responded “How would I know? We're only an index.”
In April of 2000, Metallica also sued Napster. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said in a statement that it was “sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is.” The British company NetPD estimated that more than 335,000 Metallica songs had been traded on Napster in just three days. The band also sued the University of Southern California, Yale, and Indiana University for not blocking Napster, even though only seven colleges in the country blocked Napster at the time. Not long after, Dr. Dre followed suit (no pun intended) and also sued Napster.
None of this did anything to slow the site’s traffic down, as it gradually grew to a whopping 17 million users who traded approximately three billion MP3s per month. Artists did what they could, from spamming the site with false versions of their own songs to giving away certain MP3s on their own websites, but the flood gates had been opened. As Salon noted in 1999, “as long as it costs $17 for a CD and you can't even get it in digital format, it's likely that fans will find a way to trade files illegally.”
On July 26, 2000, the police showed up to the party. U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that Napster was encouraging “wholesale infringing” of the music industry and ordered Napster to create a way to prevent users from trading any copyrighted material. Napster attempted to implement filtering devices, including one misdirected attempt which tried to block the trading of songs by certain artist’s names. Since the filter wasn’t equipped to block slight variations in spelling, users just started slightly misspelling artists and the file swapping continued. One year later, however, Judge Patel ordered Napster to shut down their servers until they could better police their users.
Napster closed the site in July of 2001 and was bankrupt a year later. By that time, however, dozens of other file-sharing sites had popped up, not to mention the technology to skirt detection by the RIAA or anyone else. The days of records selling more than 10 million copies were over.
Why couldn't Metallica have saved the world from THIS?
As a result, 1999 is not remembered as the year of another Cher comeback, the year Britney broke, or the year when Sixpence None the Richer, 702, Smash Mouth, and Eagle-Eye Cherry all became one-hit wonders. It’s the year that started a debate that still exists – the ethics of downloading pirated material. One study estimates that 95 percent of music downloaded online is illegal, and that more than 40 billion songs were illegally downloaded in 2009 alone.
More recently, of course, was the case of NPR intern Emily White, who stirred up an intense debate when she announced in a blog post that she’d “only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs.” This echoed a story from thirteen years ago, when the Toronto Globe and Mail addressed the case of a young lady named Nicole Tiesu. “Because of a new software called Napster,” said the article, “she may never buy another CD.”