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Napster — from Dawn to Dusk

(I found a few old blog posts in my draft folder that for one reason or another never got posted. I’m going to post the few that are worth posting and delete the rest. Enjoy! -Rob)

And so it ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. It wasn’t even a major headline yesterday; just another minor blip in a sea of technical news stories:

“Napster to close its doors on November 30, 2011.”

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for the summer of 1999. Coincidently that’s the same summer high-speed internet access (cable modems) became available in my area. I remember it well.

Nowadays, I’m guessing if you’re technically savvy enough to read this post, you also know how and where to acquire mp3s. Some of you buy them from iTunes and Amazon and other online digital retailers. Some of you download them illegally from the internet. Some of you create your own, from CDs you personally own. Some of you get them from your kids. Some of you get them from your grandchildren. It doesn’t matter; the point is, you know what mp3s are and how to track them down. There was a time though when that was not necessarily the case.

I first started accessing the internet regularly in the fall of 1994. Here is part of the mp3 timeline, according to Wikipedia:

On July 7, 1994, the Fraunhofer Society released the first software MP3 encoder called l3enc. The filename extension .mp3 was chosen by the Fraunhofer team on July 14, 1995 (previously, the files had been named .bit). With the first real-time software MP3 player Winplay3 (released September 9, 1995) many people were able to encode and play back MP3 files on their PCs.

I was there for that. I mean, not in the room or anything, but I remember that stuff happening. In the summer of 1995 people began trading mp3s regularly on IRC (chat rooms) … and I didn’t get it at all. Why would people want to trade recordings of songs that you could hear on the radio? It made no sense to me for a number of reasons, the first of which was, in 1995 (and for several more years) I was connecting to the internet via a dial-up modem. Downloading a single song took several minutes. Additionally, drive space was an issue. This was before the advent of USB, and long before hard drives were measured in terabytes — heck, in 1994, I didn’t even have a gigabyte of storage! Back then my largest hard drive consisted of 540 megabytes. (I didn’t buy a gigabyte hard drive until 1995; it cost me a thousand dollars.) When you only have 500 megabytes of storage, 5 megabyte mp3s (that wouldn’t fit on a floppy disk) added up quickly.

It took me a couple of years to “get it”, and in 1997 I downloaded my first mp3s. Stored on an old CD-R that magically still works, here are the files from that directory:

08/11/1997 01:38 AM 3,280,271 Trio-DaDaDa.mp3
08/11/1997 07:00 PM 998,086 smurfs-theme.mp3
08/11/1997 08:28 AM 3,449,706 MarilynManson-BeautifulPeople.mp3
08/11/1997 09:14 AM 3,854,290 Prodigy-Breathe.mp3
08/11/1997 09:19 AM 3,105,982 Beck-DevilsHaircut.mp3
08/11/1997 09:36 AM 3,574,125 Nirvana-Lithium.mp3
08/11/1997 09:48 AM 3,178,161 LoveMeLoveMe.mp3
08/11/1997 10:30 AM 2,570,605 ScoobySnacks-FLC.mp3
08/11/1997 10:48 AM 5,295,124 WhereItsAt-Beck.mp3
08/11/1997 10:54 AM 4,143,936 Garbage-StupidGirl.mp3
08/11/1997 10:56 AM 107,764 Dolby-THX-Introduction.mp3
08/11/1997 11:05 AM 3,160,868 Metallica-HolierThanThou.mp3
08/11/1997 11:10 AM 2,580,845 StarWars-ImperialTheme.mp3

As you can see, naming conventions weren’t a big priority back then.

Unlike today where people trade or downloaded either entire albums or entire discographies (every album an artist has released), back then people traded singles. People didn’t have huge collections of mp3s back then, so often you had to take what you can get, and finding specific songs online was often difficult or impossible. There was no “do you have this album?” It was more like, “I have these 20 songs, here you go.” People’s mp3 directories were a large mish-mash of artists and songs of varying quality. There was no centralized hub or search engine for finding mp3s.

And then came Napster.

Napster was one of the first peer-to-peer programs I ever used. And the way it worked was, once you connected to Napster, the mp3s on your computer got added to Napster’s search engine. When you searched for a song, it searched the computers of everybody who was connected. If multiple people had the same version of the same file, it would pull bits from all of them and reassemble them on your machine. Pretty sneaky, sis.

What made Napster work were college kids, who had access to high speed internet connections before many of us. Combine that with school-provided network storage, and dorm rooms across America became gigantic, festering mp3 repositories. Because they were connected via ethernet (as opposed to dial-up), there was no incentive to disconnect from the network. Ever.

It wasn’t long before you could find virtually anything using Napster. I remember putting together custom soundtracks at the time, like one I made for the movie Rad. I was never able to track down the soundtrack of that movie, but using Napster, I was able to track down each individual song and create my own. I also put together my own version of Goofy Gold, an old double-LP from K-TEL full of comedic singles. In its heyday, it was tough to find songs not available through Napster. It was not uncommon for songs and albums to appear on Napster before they arrived in stores. Sometimes, weeks before.

In 2000 Courtney Love wrote an article on Salon.com about the music industry. By and large it was about the industry in general, but in a couple of places she talked about mp3s.

I’m not afraid of wireless, MP3 files or any of the other threats to my copyrights. Anything that makes my music more available to more people is great. MP3 files sound cruddy, but a well-made album sounds great. And I don’t care what anyone says about digital recordings. At this point they are good for dance music, but try listening to a warm guitar tone on them. They suck for what I do.

I’m not singling out Love here; the vast majority of musicians felt the same way at that time. The people that did get it was the music industry. Well — they didn’t get that mp3s would be a viable business per se, but they did get that they were losing customers (and dollars) to this new technology. Nerds listening to nerdcore in their dorm rooms was one thing; music afficianado listening to mp3s on their phones elevated things to another level. The point could be made that mp3s don’t sound as good as CD or vinyl could be made — however, the price and accessibility were definitely right.

Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, became the face of artists against Napster when he launched a public attack against the site. Breaking possibly the worst musician rule ever, he attacked the bands fans for swapping those same “cruddy sounding mp3s” via Napster. Lars and Metallica suffered a backlash that I’m not sure either ever recovered from, but once MTV and Entertainment Tonight were discussing Napster regularly in mainstream media, the writing was on the wall.

After being sued by both Metallica and Dr. Dre (both of whom delivered print outs containing Napster users sharing their songs), Napster officially closed its doors in July of 2001. But, as my Dad would say, “the genie was already out of the bottle.” 1, the concept of “not paying for mp3s” had already been established in the minds of computer users. And 2, the concept of peer-to-peer filesharing also took off. For every Napster that was shut down a Gnutella, Limewire, Grokster and eDonkey was set up.

For a period Napster attempted to go legit. According to Wikipedia, the Napster name and logo was purchased by Raxio, which the company used to name their Pressplay service to “Napster 2.0”. In September of 2008, Best Buy acquired the Napster brand. Neither version of Napster was financially successful, although I did buy a 10-pack of Napster-branded CD-R discs (ironic, right?) that I never opened and still own.

On November 30th, Napster rolled into Rhapsody, another music-related service, thus ending its legacy once and for all.

Shawn Parker, co-founder of Napster, didn’t completely disappear. In 2004 he became president of the then five-month-old upstart Facebook. Most recently, Parker joined the board of Spotify, a — what else — digital music streaming service.

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2 comments to Napster — from Dawn to Dusk

  • I don’t think the sheer diversity of material available on Napster has ever been equalled (though there’s no reason for that, really – you’d think it would’ve been exceeded by now). I still have several somewhat crappily-encoded 128kbps files I downloaded from Napster back in the day because I’ve never found the same material elsewhere, not even from a legit source. They were frequently LP/cassette rips of stuff that has simply never come back into print.

  • Rob

    I agree. Some of the tracks I put together for my versions of Goofy Gold and the Rad soundtrack I have never seen again.