Looking back at Napster
Napster revolutionized the consumption of music as we know it, but few are aware of its significance today. The documentary “Downloaded” explores the story of Napster’s ultimate rise and fall of how the internet and two self-starters decided to change the consumption of music forever.
Imagine a time when music could not be easily downloaded music from the internet. That was life before the year 2000. Miscellaneous sites offered a variety of downloadable services, but none could quite give consumers the depth and breadth of music that customers longed for, until Napster was introduced.
Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker were the innovative minds behind the company in 2001. At a young age, Fanning realized just how the internet could be used as an intellectual and social force for good, which prompted him to learn how to code at age nineteen. Fanning was also shown to have had used music as a creative outlet due to his rough childhood in “Downloaded”.
The early experiences that Fanning encountered with music and the internet would translate into Napster’s business model to make music free, shareable, and easy to download. These simple notions drove the company’s popularity, especially among the younger demographic. In addition, word of mouth and the internet community fueled its growth.
Before the founders knew it Napster gained millions and millions of views. Musicians that were not attached to labels were also enjoying the fruits of Napster’s labor because they were able to get discovered more easily by listeners.
The documentary mentions that the ensemble “Dispatch” attributed its growing success to Napster since after the company’s launch, the group saw exponential interest in their music and merchandise sales. Music labels were no longer the only way for groups to get noticed although, Napster did not intend to replace major labels. Instead, the company sought to help and even work alongside the music industry to help it evolve.
On the other hand, Napster was not only sunshine and rainbows as the business operated in a gray area. Napster did have the permission or strike a deal with any of the music labels that would allow a musician’s work to be downloaded for free use to the masses.
Famous heavy metal band, Metallica, publicly criticized Napster for leaking music before it was officially released and on the notion that the company did not receive permission or contribute to the intellectual property to any of the music. The question of legality caused heavy controversy to shroud Napster as some musicians saw the service as pirating, while others congratulated the innovation and possible revolution of music. The music labels would later accuse the company of copyright infringement claims, leading to multiple lawsuits.
In the end, Napster met its demise in the court system the same year when it opened and half a million dollars were swallowed by the settlement. Napster’s millions of users were none too happy about the closure of their site and flocked to other illegal music sharing websites. Illegal music sharing increased across the board much to the dismay of the music labels and the legal system.
Ultimately, the music industry failed to adapt to customer needs, resulting in a cut in sales. Luckily Napster’s legacy would live on and ultimately influence the most successful music predecessors, iTunes and Spotify.
iTunes was built on the idea that customers could choose the individual songs they listen to at a relatively low price with ease, which was borrowed from Napster’s same core values. The platform was the first dominate downloadable music site since Napster.
Although, another service would overshadow iTunes in a couple of years after its introduction and did everything the competitor could do, but better. This company was called Spotify, a free music streaming site. Spotify was similar to iTunes in almost every way except that it was initially free.
Free was the key distinction that would lead customers to flock to Spotify, which caused iTunes’ decline. Spotify gained revenue by including advertisements between songs or feeing a monthly subscription without advertisements at the person’s choice. The Napster owners would have been especially supportive of the free component of Spotify. Last summer I recall listening to a Freakonomics podcast called “How Spotify Saved the Music Industry, But Not Necessarily Musicians” documenting an interview with the Daniel Ek, co-founder of Spotify. In the podcast, Ek was very intentional in stating that he wanted to work with the music labels, not against it, as the founders of Napster once thought.
Sean Parker, a co-founder of Napster, even invested in Spotify and served on its board of directors. Spotify and Napster both sought to collaborate with the music industry and create a music model that would be consumer-friendly. The only difference between the two was that Spotify learned from Napster’s mistakes and was launched during a much more tech-savvy environment.
Napster unfortunately received the blunt of the negative reactions gained from introducing a game-changing initiative that would dominate the industry because it was the first to ever do so.
I believe that Napster was overall a force of good for the internet and culture at large. However, it is notable to mention that my opinion derives from the generation that preceded and adopted Napster’s values. In the early interviews shown in “Downloaded”, Fanning and Parker sounded genuine when talking about their ideas.
The start-up did not seem to have any malicious intentions. It came from a place of innocence and of a mindset to make the experience of listening to music more enjoyable. As noted before, Napster did not want to enrage the music industry but wanted to aid it. Napster demonstrated just how effective the internet could be once a collective public rallied for a change.
The internet was no longer an unattainable sci-fi device, but rather a growing space that would change the concepts of economy and social relationships. Napster is just one example of the potential impact that the internet can create in society.
Fanning and Parker’s ground-breaking idea would revolutionize how music was consumed at a cultural level which placed ease, choice, and price reduction at the forefront serving as the main ideas that would inspire music generations to come.