Around the turn of the millennium, once we had reassured ourselves that the western world was not going to grind to a halt with the Y2K bug, I was attempting to show a family member some of the magic of a wondrous new invention: The Internet.
He wasn’t too impressed. “You can find anything you like on here. Anything,” I said.
“The weather in San Francisco?” Well, the web’s oldest webcam will still update you on the fog conditions in the Golden State.
“What about Kitty Kallen’s 1944 recording of Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry?
We were in luck. We were surfing the net during the two-year window in which Napster was rocking the record industry to its core. The genie of digital music had been let out of its bottle in the decade before, with the advent of CDs. The birth of the MP3 — a digitally compressed audio file — meant that sound files were now instantly and infinitely transferable. You could make a copy for me, I could make a copy for you… but you could only swap files within your limited circle of friends and relations.
It was in June 1999 that the 19-year-old Shawn Fanning and his co-founder, Sean Parker, released their revolutionary piece of software. Napster, at its core, was a search and index program. You told it what music files you had and were willing to share, and others did the same. The software eventually catalogued files from millions of users on a central server. You searched this database, found the file you wanted, then the software made a connection between your PC and the remote PC to transfer the song. Its genius was that it made peer-to-peer networking (“P2P”) and file-sharing so simple that even I could do it.
Napster was a huge hit. At its peak, it had around 26 million registered users.
Not surprising. Easy file-sharing made it simple for music fans to download copies of songs that were otherwise hard to find. These included older songs, unreleased tracks, and Kitty Kallen’s 1944 recording of Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.
My relative’s eyes widened in wonder. “I haven’t heard that song for over forty years.” Perhaps this Internet malarkey might be good for something after all.
Another reason Napster flourished was because there was a disconnect in the package offered by record companies and the package their customers wanted. Why pay over-the-odds for an entire CD when you only really wanted one or two songs on it? Fans wanted an easy, inexpensive way to get individual tracks and the record industry wouldn’t provide one. Napster did. It was illegal, sure, but it made stealing feel socially acceptable. After all, you’d been ripped off long enough.
Needless to say, the record industry was not entirely happy. In December 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed suit, accusing Napster of violating copyright laws. A flurry of lawsuits against Napster — and against users who downloaded content illegally — forced it to close. In July 2001, Napster shut down its entire pirate network. Yet the technology that made it possible for users to share music files was now out there. Napster had been burned. But from its ashes rose LimeWire, Kazaa (now vanished), and Paradises such as Apple’s 99-cents-a-song iTunes.
Single songs and streaming are so ubiquitous and legal that you can now listen to Kitty Kallen — still for free — on another sharing site: You Tube.