Right at the turn of the century, a young college kid starts an online file sharing service from his dorm room. Little does he know he’s about to change the course of the music industry forever.
“You have to remember, this isn’t just about the music: the reason that music is out of the box first is that it’s the shortest amount of digital information we’re getting, we’re probably twelve to eighteen months away from a situation where the day that a movie opens in theaters, it can be downloaded for free on computers all over the world, the day that Tom Clancy writes a new book it’ll be up on the Internet for anyone who wants it.” – Lars Ulrich
It’s the year 2000, and we’d finished partying like it was 1999. The world didn’t end with the Y2K bug, although that didn’t mean we entered the new millennium without worry. Chad was destined to become the most popular baby name of the 21st century after the presidential election seemed to be plagued by the hanging variety of chads. Peace in the Middle East vaporized as violence between Israelis and Palestinians flared. And on a “great day” for science, President Bill Clinton announced on June 26 that scientists had mapped the entire human genome, the genetic blueprint for all humans, referred to as, “The Book of Life.”
Popular music evolved out of the old century and into the new with landmark releases by Coldplay, Radiohead, and Modest Mouse. Eminem burst onto the scene with The Marshall Mathers LP and rock legends U2 told us about All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The Beatles, Whitney Houston, and Madonna charted with greatest hits records while Pearl Jam released their first record of the new millennium, Binaural.
But this is a story about music and the music industry, about how a college dropout with an entrepreneurial uncle forever changed how we consume and listen to music. This is a tale of binary code, a sequence of 1’s and 0’s written to create a file-sharing program that brought down an entire industry.
I’m your host, J. Thorn, and this is, “Consequences of Rock.”
File sharing. Although both words had existed before the 1990s, they hadn’t been used together and in the new context of digital file duplication and distribution.
In 1999, Metallica is the biggest heavy metal band in the world, possibly one of the biggest mainstream rock bands in history. They’ve already sold millions of copies of the Black Album since its release in 1991 (well over 16 million to date) and played to hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide throughout the 1990s. With a long history of pioneering thrash metal and leading a rabid fan base of metal enthusiasts, even casual fans of music know of Metallica.The band releases a cover of a Thin Lizzy song, “Whiskey in a Jar,” which becomes a mainstream rock radio smash. They win a Grammy Award for the song, “Better Than You.” The Recording Industry Association of America presents the band with the Diamond Award for surpassing 10 million copies sold of the Black Album.
The innovative and ambitious heavy metal band teams up with legendary conductor, Michael Kamen, and plays their music alongside the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for two gigs at the Berkeley Community Theater. These shows spawn the release of a collaborative double album, “S&M.”
But a year or so earlier, the band begins to find itself in the middle of a rash of trademark infringement lawsuits which would pale in comparison to a new music distribution system, a threat that would eventually change the way we listen to music forever.
Metallica files its first lawsuit against a Seattle-based startup known as Amazon, an online book reseller beginning to branch out into other mediums and products. The band claims the retailer is selling unauthorized versions of a CD containing Metallica songs, a bootleg called, “Bay Area Thrashers.”
By 1999, Metallica’s attorneys are playing whack-a-mole against others seeking to profit illegally from the band’s intellectual property.
First, they sue N2K and Outlaw Records for selling unauthorized copies of bootleg Metallica recordings.
Then, lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret casually puts the band’s logo on a line of lip pencils, naming the shade Metallica—without the band’s consent.
Next up is international clothing designer Pierre Cardin and tuxedo-manufacturing licensee West Mill, allegedly using the name Metallica in advertisements.
A company manufacturing nail files decides to use the name Metallica on the product packaging.
“The ones doing it are fairly sizable companies. I don’t know what the thought process is here. I’m not sure why they think they can get away with it. Anyone who does a trademark search would come up with the Metallica name and see how much we protect the trademark.” – Jill Pietrini, attorney representing Metallica
Attorneys send a cease and desist letter to Neiman Marcus for stocking and selling a perfume designed by Guerlain labeled—you guessed it, Metallica.
As the trademark infringement lawsuits pile up, and the band continues to garner mainstream success, a stress fracture begins to appear, pitting legions of new fans against the hardcore ones who had been there during the band’s early days when, as Kirk Hammett used to say, they lived in abandoned warehouses and ate nothing but empty sandwiches.
Metallica had amassed millions of dollars and had risen far above their humble Bay Area roots. They had bled on their guitars and sacrificed everything for a shot at the big time. James, Kirk, Lars, and Jason had reached the pinnacle of their industry through hard work and a dedication to their craft that is legendary.
But whispers of “sell-out” can be heard in the back alleys of metal fandom. Lars Ulrich, the most outspoken of the men and mouthpiece of the band, begins to represent the greed of the record companies and executives. Fans see Metallica as part of the machine that is exploiting the fans for commercial and financial gain.
This dichotomy presents the band with a serious problem in the spring of the new millennium. Starting in April of 2000 and for the next 16 months, Metallica will be embroiled in a war on multiple fronts—damage incorporated.
On April 13, 2000, Metallica files a lawsuit against Napster, USC, Yale University, and Indiana University, claiming copyright infringement. In a statement, the band says that Napster “encourages and enables visitors to its website to unlawfully exchange with others copyrighted songs and sound recordings without the knowledge or permission of Metallica.”
Gangsta rap OG and West Coast music mogul, Dr. Dre joins the discussion, siding with Metallica. Six days later, Yale University is dropped from the lawsuit as the school blocks access to Napster from its network.
“Metallica is suing Napster because we felt that someone had to address this important artistic issue, and we have always been known for taking a leadership role in the fight for artists’ rights. We were the first band to sue our record company, Time Warner, for the right to control our future. Rather than allowing the record company or any other corporation to own our recordings and compositions, we chose to fight for (and eventually win) control of our music. This issue is no different. Why is it all of a sudden OK to get music for free? Why should music be free, when it costs artists money to record and produce it?” – official statement from Metallica, May 2000
In an unprecedented and seemingly aggressive move against fans, Metallica delivers a list of 300,000 users (60,000 pages long) to Napster headquarters, a compilation of fans who file-swapped their music. Metallica wants the users to be banned or removed.
“If we have to start knocking on doors and confiscating hard drives, then so be it.” – Lars Ulrich
A new website, MP3.com, agrees to voluntarily remove content owned by the “Big Five” record companies.
But not all musicians and artists believe Metallica is making the right call. In May of 2000, political activist and Public Enemy front rapper, Chuck D, faces off with Lars on “The Charlie Rose Show.”
Lars argues that it isn’t about the money. He claims that tape trading of live shows, a practice the band had always encouraged, came with inherent fidelity loss with each generation, but no such degeneration occurred in the perfect digital format, where mp3s could be swapped infinitely with perfect replication.
“When we go in, and check Napster out, we come up with 1.4 million copyright infringements in 48 hours, this is a different thing than trading cassette tapes with your buddy at school.” – Lars Ulrich
Chuck D sees things differently. He argues that file sharing is a way for artists to fight the oppression of the recording industry.
“It’s a parallel world, and a new paradigm is taking shape. You have to adapt to it. This goes beyond Chuck versus Lars. This is about the record industry versus the people. The people have got it on their side, and you’ve got to adapt.” – Chuck D
As promised, Lars delivers the list of users to Napster, all 300,000 fans illegally file-sharing Metallica songs. Napster honors the request and bans them, resulting in serious blowback as 10% of those fans, 30,000 users, claim to have been wrongfully accused.
“We are not stupid. Of course we realize the future of getting music from Metallica to the people who are interested in Metallica’s music is through the internet. But the question is, on whose conditions, and obviously we want it to be on our condition.” – Lars Ulrich
Legendary KISS member, and one of rock’s most entrepreneurial musicians, weighs in on the controversy.
“Robbery is robbery, whether it’s petty, larceny, or major… You’re not allowed to take a penny from me. It’s not permissible.” – Gene Simmons
On February 12, 2001, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says Napster must block users who exchanged copyrighted songs without permission.
“I like playing music because it’s a good living and I get satisfaction from it. But I can’t feed my family with satisfaction.” – James Hetfield
In a blatant example of Napster’s apparent hypocrisy, Lars testifies before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He reads Napster’s terms of service: “This website or any portion of this website may not be reproduced, duplicated, copies, sold, resold, or otherwise exploited for any commercial purpose that is not expressly permitted by Napster.”
On July 12, 2001, a settlement between Metallica and Napster is reached. The company agrees to create filters to prevent the sharing of the copyrighted material.
“We believe that this settlement will create the kind of enhanced protection for artists that we’ve been seeking from Napster… It’s good that they’re going legit.” – Lars Ulrich
“Even when we were at odds with Metallica, we always understood that they had the best interests of artists in mind… Despite the litigation, Metallica’s position has been a reflection of their high ideals and their private dealings with Napster have always been gracious. It’s time to end the court fight and shake hands.” – Shawn Fanning
Many Metallica fans believe the band is a master of puppets, manipulating the legal system at the expense of the people who had made them international rock stars. Despite what Lars claims, that the revenue loss to file-sharing was “pocket change” and that the band had acted on principle, many fans don’t buy it. For them, it is all about the money.
Shawn Fanning is born on November 22, 1980, in Brockton, Massachusetts. His unique family dynamics will eventually create a perfect storm of entrepreneurial zeal and a footnote in the pre-millennium zeitgeist.
Shawn lives with his single mother, Coleen, and many uncles and aunts in the blue-collar town of Rockland, Massachusetts. His father, Joe Rando, isn’t around much which will eventually open the door for Shawn’s uncle to take on a paternal role.
“Money was always a pretty big issue. There was a lot of tension around that.” – Shawn Fanning
When Shawn turns twelve, his uncle John steps up and takes the boy under his wing, sparing him from constantly moving from one foster home to another.
“I told him that I had talked to my wife and we only had a small apartment, but he could come live with us. He was just a kid, twelve or thirteen.” – John Fanning
John Fanning had earned a high school diploma from a vocational school and was in and out of classes at Boston College, never earning a degree despite being enrolled on and off for eight years. He tried launching two businesses—Cambridge Automation and Chess.net, neither of which succeeded, but he had a knack for working beneath the radar, avoiding bankruptcy, and getting creative when it came to dealing with collections agencies.
As a young teenager, Shawn gets introduced to the world of video games through the Nintendo Entertainment System console through a game known as, “The Legend of Zelda.” His love of video games quickly becomes an obsession, and in 1996, by the time he’s seventeen, Shawn is a full-blown hacker.
But he’s not destructive, simply hanging out in the Internet Relay Channels, also called IRCs, learning as much as possible about e-commerce security, hoping to learn more about computers and programming—not to rob banks.
“For me personally, the fun part was when I was just a hacker. I got my first computer when I was 16. It was a gift from my uncle.” – Shawn Fanning
At Harwich Port High School, Shawn plays baseball, tennis, and basketball. During this period, his uncle buys Shawn expensive gifts, like a purple BMW Z3. In 1996, John buys Shawn an Apple Macintosh—his first computer.
“He set me up with internet access. I was pretty much on the internet right away. I used it for him at his house. I think the first time I used it was to play chess. I was amazed by it. I loved it. Completely sucked in like everybody.” – Shawn Fanning
John hires Shawn as an intern for Chess.net in 1997.
“We set up a little computer for him in the living room—I think it was something we made with spare parts—and taught him to program. He was fifteen years old. You give him one or two little things and he sort of goes with it from there.” – Ali Aydar, former Chess.net employee
When John buys Shawn an expensive laptop, the teenager figures out how to load it with digital music.
“I remember having a technical discussion about MP3s online—people explaining compression ratios. It gained some popularity. I heard quite a bit on IRC.” – Shawn Fanning
But Chess.net goes belly up, forcing John Fanning to look for another way to pay off thousands of dollars of debt. And he has his eye on his nephew’s unique skill stack.
“I wrote Napster when I was eighteen. There was no internet bubble at the time. My family thought I was playing games and messing around. They had no idea that I was diving into this completely new world. And it wasn’t something I knew how to explain, because I was trying to make sense of it myself.” – Shawn Fanning
In 1997, Nullsoft releases Winamp, an mp3 player that would simplify the task of organizing, playing, and collecting mp3 files. MP3.com launches that same year, catering mostly to independent artists more interested in exposure to new fans than amassing royalties.
Shawn applies to Carnegie Mellon University but is not accepted, and so he opts for a school in his back yard, Northeastern University. But the college life bores him. Instead of attending classes and doing his homework Shawn hangs out on the w00w00 IRC, learning what he can about the internet architecture and file-sharing protocols.
Fanning realizes that finding mp3 files is not difficult—a search engine can do that. He believes that the key to getting file-sharing past the tipping point is to leverage the network effect by creating a central server that can host a directory of users and their content, but will also allow individual computers to share files directly over the internet—peer to peer.
As a kid, Shawn used to call a bad haircut a napster, which eventually became his IRC handle, and then the name of his file-sharing software.
Napster doesn’t require much technical expertise. Users download and install the free program. They register a few personal details, creating a profile. Then, the software can be directed to search other people’s computers that are running the same software, identifying a treasure trove of mp3 files. Once the mp3 files are downloaded, a user can share, copy, or even create CDs from the files—all without ever paying a penny or stepping away from the computer.
In 1999, Shawn is struggling through his second semester of college. He’s spending his time in marathon coding sessions for Napster, meaning he’s falling farther and farther behind in his studies. While Shawn’s mother is disappointed with the perceived waste of time, his uncle John is watching closely.
John Fanning creates Napster, Inc. and offers Shawn 30% of the business, which Shawn reluctantly accepts, justifying the profit model based on the fact that it was still exponentially better than the royalty deals most musicians received from major labels—a record label deal a pipedream of Shawn’s that would never materialize.
The lure of Napster would be too strong for Shawn to ignore.
“I just stopped going to school. I left my dorm room. I didn’t tell any of my friends. I just stopped going.” – Shawn Fanning
In the summer of 2000, Napster boasts nearly 20 million users. At the MTV Video Music Awards that year, Fanning introduces Britney Spears while wearing a Metallica T-shirt.
Time magazine puts Shawn on its cover in October. That same month, he presents at the Rave Awards in San Francisco. Courtney Love calls him “my future husband” as she’s sitting in his lap.
Napster representatives are busy trying to score investment deals with Limp Bizkit, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and even Madonna.
Fanning and Napster are featured in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Napster’s users triple in a matter of months, making Shawn Fanning a rock star of a new and different kind.
“Rock stars and people that play music seriously—they know when they’re successful, there’s a certain fame associated with that. When you’re writing software, it’s the last thing you expected. Long coding sessions don’t go well with camera interviews, even back to back.” – Shawn Fanning
Many see Shawn Fanning as a modern-day Bob Dylan—a “salt of the earth” everyman standing up against the corporate greed infecting the music industry and threatening to bring it down from the inside out.
Agents, A&R guys, and executives had a long history of taking advantage of artists. Now, those artists had a way to fight back, to circumvent the archaic distribution system and prevent the labels from leeching more profit from the artists—the men and women doing all the work.
But Lars Ulrich and Metallica see things differently. And Lars would try to warn us all about the ramifications of such rampant and uncontrolled file sharing. Nobody is listening.
“Napster was the invention of people who regard quantity as being more valid than quality. It was not merely that the site failed to place financial value on the songs and albums it offered its subscribers, but rather that it failed to ascribe value of any kind. The logical conclusion of such a mindset is a world where music is entirely disposable. But as Lars Ulrich pointed to the future, the world merely stared at his finger.” – Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood
On June 26, 2000, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel rules in favor of the RIAA and orders Napster to stop allowing copyrighted material to be swapped through their software. By March of 2001, Napster begins to liquidate its assets and stops the development of the software.
That ship had sailed. We’d missed the boat. Choose whatever liquid idiom you want. The opportunity to corral technology had been squandered. Record labels put their heads in the sand, assuming they’d be able to protect their assets in a digital world. They couldn’t. Artists didn’t have the clout or the rights to do so without owning their back catalog, many of whom had signed contracts that would make this eternally impossible.
If Shawn Fanning and the major record labels had partnered with artists like Metallica, the industry might be different today. We might now live in a world that still appreciates music as a valuable cultural commodity instead of as a worthless entitlement relegated to vinyl-purchasing hipsters or balding, middle-aged men who still own a CD player.
Without attempting to canonize Ulrich or oversimplify a complex situation, it’s tempting to be certain of one consequence of the Napster era—Lars was right.
I’m your host, J. Thorn. And this is “Consequences of Rock.”
Episode written by J. Thorn, edited by Eve Paludan.
Recorded at 88.7 FM WJCU studios, University Heights, Ohio.
Audio mixed and engineered by Adam Phillips.
Produced by J. Thorn and Adam Phillips.
All research was conducted at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – Library and Archives in Cleveland, Ohio, with a special thanks to Jennie Thomas, Director of Archives, William Jackson, Archives Assistant, Sule Holder, Library Assistant, and Laura Maidens, Librarian.
Serious – The Tower of Light
Worse – The Tower of Light
Street Smart- Quincas Moreira
Clash of Gods- – Quincas Moreira
Chtulthu- Quincas Moreira
Because For Everything There Is Someone – pATCHES
Cicada Killer- Coyote Hearing
What Is Performance and What Is Not- pATCHES
Lulu Is The Cat I Like Best – pATCHES
Burning Time – Threefold Law
Keyboard typing: M4taiori – of freesound.org
Gavel strikes: Odditonic of freesound.org
Dial up internet: jlew of freesound.org
For a complete list of sources cited, see the show notes for this episode.
McIver, Joel. Metallica: Justice for All. Omnibus Press, 2014.
Brannigan, Paul, and Ian Winwood. Into the Black: The Inside Story of Metallica, 1991-2014. Da Capo, 2014.
Berlinger, Joe, and Greg Milner. Metallica: This Monster Lives: The Inside Story of Some Kind of Monster. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005.
Putterford, Mark. Metallica: In Their Own Words. Omnibus Press, 1994.
King, Tom, and Michael Smith. Metallica: Nothing Else Matters. Abstract Sounds Books Ltd, 2010.
Chirazi, Steffan. So What!: The Good, the Mad, and the Ugly. Broadway Books, 2004.
Wall, Mick. Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica. St. Martin’s Press, 2011.
Stenning, Paul. Metallica: All That Matters. Plexus, 2010.
Knopper, Steve. Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age. Steve Knopper, 2017.
Witt, Stephen. How Music Got Free. Viking, 2015.
Menn, Joseph. All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning’s Napster. Crown Business, 2003.