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20 years later: How the Napster lawsuit gave rise to streaming

It’s been 20 years since Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) v. Napster was fought in my hometown, San Mateo, CA.

Seldom talked about anymore, it’s because of Napster that we consume music the way we do today.

What’s Napster?

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Napster was a peer-to-peer music file-sharing site launched on June 1, 1999 by Shawn Fanning. Nearly anything you wanted could be downloaded as an MP3 file to your computer.

Every music fan of Gen X’s wet dream was finally realized in the silver millennium. The popularity was instant. At its peak, its year of founding, over 60 million users were active in the United States.

Its popularity was its ultimate downfall.

Metallica leak

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Keep in mind, in the year 2000, the primary method of consuming music was on the radio or a CD. This was a time when music was still regularly bought. Such a thing did not exist virtually yet.

An early mix of Metallica’s songĀ I DisappearĀ was leaked to Napster. Intended to debut on the Mission Impossible: II soundtrack that summer, it was played on radio stations nationwide. Drummer Lars Ulrich heard it and immediately contacted his lawyers.

While the rest of the RIAA eventually followed, Metallica was at the forefront of this movement. Because of this, they were seen as greedy, resulting in massive public backlash.

This reputation never truly faded, as many still troll the forums to complain about it.

Lawsuit decision

In 2001, Napster was shut down and bankrupted. Many missed their easy access to free music. Some other file-sharing sites such as Limewire came to prominence. The Internet was largely still the Wild West.

It became clear that digital was the way people were getting music now. Some artists supported these file sharing sites for their exposure.

The audience was simply not paying for music anymore.

MP3 download

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By the late 2000s, video streaming online was finally widespread. Because of that, copyright music made its way to YouTube and Vimeo, often still staying up.

It was only a matter of time before video to MP3 sites emerged to rip audio from YouTube. iTunes may have been the way music became purchased then after, but people still found a way.

These sites became popular into the 2010s, and became how most people got their music until streaming.

Streaming services

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With a small flat rate to listen to a nearly unlimited library of music, these services were a win for the public. Spotify, Soundcloud, and Apple Music still dominate music streaming.

Ironically enough, Napster was bought by streaming service Rhapsody, and rebranded to become a pay-to-use service.

Companies listened: people were done with buying music. Without a physical medium to purchase, it became much harder to charge people.

With this as the new standard, the idea of making money from music has become something of a novelty. It was already inordinately hard before, and the chances now are even slimmer.

This is natural selection of the market hard at work. Things are only worth as much as the public at large is willing to pay for them. Sadly, for music lovers like myself, it’s not worth what it used to be.

When the new way reveals itself, one must embrace it or be left behind. Enjoy music your way, friends.