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Farewell, Napster: Read SPIN’s 2000 Story About The Little Pirate That Could

Look back at what we called 'the obsessively loved, obsessively hated software that's revolutionizing MP3s on the web'

By: G Beato // December 1, 2011

Napster, the file-sharing service that reshaped the music industry, is no more. In 2000, when the scrappy start-up was just getting off the ground, SPIN examined the company — and its charismatic founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker — in a fascinating profile that’s even more engrossing a decade later. This story was originally published in SPIN’s May 2000 issue.

Napster, the new MP3 file-exchange program, is like a virus. No, wait — a beehive. No,wait — a field of dandelions. A big field of dandelions in a strong breeze. It’s new. It’shot. It’s the AOL of MP3, so easy to use that even record executives can do it. It’s stillin beta! It’s going to change the way you listen to music. Right? Right?

Maybe. Who knows. But it’s very cool. People like it so much it’s getting sued. And banned.By March 1, network administrators at more than 130 universities had pulled the plug onNapster. At Dell Computers, employees in the tech-support department were reportedlyusing it so much they were giving some coeds a run for their money. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) called Napster “a giant online pirate bazaar” and wants toshut it down. Nonetheless, its fanbase is spreading wildly. To chat rooms. To campuses. ToCanada. Napster’s programmers have even spotted users from the Department of Defense.Says a guy who calls himself Pimplicking on NapsterCult, a site that is devoted to obsessiveNapster use: “I love Napster so much that it feels like a fucking brick hit me in the head. It’sreal technology in action. Napster saved my hopeless life.”

What makes Napster so compelling to so many people? Mostly it’s the way it works. Napsterdoesn’t store or serve any MP3s from its site; instead it allows users to access the MP3s storedon other users’ hard drives. An extremely organic, extremely viral entity, the Napster network gets better as it gets bigger, because each new user adds something to it. When you runNapster for the first time, you designate a folder on your hard disk as your MP3 library. Then,when you connect to a Napster server, it knows what songs you’d like to share with otherusers. Once you’re connected, any Napster users can download songs from you, and you candownload songs from them; Napster just keeps track of where those songs are. At this pointin the Internet’s evolution, that’s almost a heretical — or at least retrograde — concept: userssharing files directly with other users. Still, what makes Napster really compelling to so manypeople is that other people’s computers are often stacked with not-entirety-legal MP3s.

This is nothing new, of course. For years there have been thousands of clandestine FTPsites where you can illegally obtain songs and whole albums of copyright-protected music.But searching for MP3s on the Internet can be a hellish, want-to-stick-forks-in-your-eyestype of experience. Many FTP sites are online only part of the day or limit the number ofconcurrent users. Others operate as “ratio sites,” requiring you to upload, say, three songsfor every one that you download. Napster has simply streamlined the process, offering tonsof easy-to-download music in the form of private collections.

In a typical session, a Napster server connects anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 users. Thisgives you access to hundreds of thousands of songs. While Napster won’t reveal exactly howmany servers it operates, sources put the number at around 140. At the moment, these serverswork independently — that is, when you connect to one, you can only share songs with the2,000 to 5,000 other users currently using that server. But Napster is in the process of linkingall of its machines. and when that happens, you’ll be able to share songs across the entireNapster network. Imagine the consequences then: 24 hours a day, all around the world, millions of average music fans are suddenly going to be trading songs with the sort of insatiable,obsessive passion generally seen only in Deadheads and indie-rock-seven-inch-collector geeks.

Have you heard of the bubonic plague?

In 1997, Shawn Fanning, then a high school junior in Harwich, Massachusetts. got his first computer. It was a gift from his Uncle John. At first, Fanning taught himself to program some simple games. Then he started hanging out on IRC, an Internet chat application. There, he spent hours talking about “Internet security issues” with IRC regulars, especially a teenage programmer from Virginia named Sean Parker. “We weren’t hackers.” Fanning says quickly, sitting with Parker in the conference roomof Napster’s headquarters in San Mateo. California.

“Absolutely not.” Parker says. “We were white hats.”

Fanning in 2000 (Photo: John Popplewell)

Only 19 now. Fanning is low-key but focused, with an ever-present University of Michigan baseball cap covering his dark, closely cropped hair. Parker, 20, is more animated. Fidgety and rosy-cheeked, wearing gray dressslacks and a shirt and tie, he looks something like a Blink-182 member pretending to be a Mormon missionary. They both like Mazda RX-7s. Fanninghas two of them with an eye on a third: Parker has only one. but it boasts astate-of-the-art Rockford Fosgate audio system complete with a retractablevideo screen and 186 pounds of speakers in the trunk. His tastes in music runfrom trance to Dave Matthews. Fanning likes electronic, hip-hop. and olderstuff. A month or so before he moved to California last summer he bought theLed Zeppelin box set: when he realized he’d left it behind, he bought it again.

Despite such dedicated patronage, the record industry has little love forFanning. He is, after all, the man who invented Napster. It started in hisdorm room at Boston’s Northeastern University in 1998. Bored by his introductory computer-sciences courses, he looked to find a more challengingproject. “My roommates were MP3 fanatics,” he says, “I heard them complaining all the time about how hard it was trying to find songs using searchengines like and”

After thinking about the problem for a while, Fanning came up with amuch better way to find MP3s on the Net. “I knew it was a great idea,” hesays, an idea as potentially big as ICQ or Hotmail. Unfortunately, when heexplained his concept to his friends, none of them showed much interest.”After a while, I sat down and started writing it myself,” he says, “But I didn’thave any experience designing graphic interfaces.” He had to buy a bookto finish the program.

Working out of space in his uncle’s office, Fanning eventually got the program up and running, and very quickly it started attracting thousands ofusers. To meet the demands of maintaining and improving Napster (whosename comes from an old junior high school nickname of Fanning’s), heenlisted the help of Parker and Jordan Ritter, another programmer he knewfrom IRC. Not long after, he stopped attending classes.

A few months later, as interest in Napster continued to build. Fanning’suncle introduced Fanning and Parker to Eileen Richardson, a Boston-basedventure capitalist who’d spent the last decade working with various high-tech start-ups. Napster’s combination of music and the Internet, two of herbiggest passions, immediately captured her interest.

“In the early ’90s, I was a huge house-music fan.” says Richardson. who’spossibly the only former venture capitalist in the world who has purple-tinted hair and wears neon pink shirts to work. “But it was hard to findhere then, so I used to fly to Amsterdam for the weekend to go to the clubsand hear the new music and DJs.” Convinced that Napster could introducenew music to similarly enthusiastic fans who didn’t have her travel budget, Richardson invested in the company and signed on as its interim CEO.

Last summer. Napster relocated to San Mateo. California. There, it occupies the kind of cluttered, disheveled offices that give fortune-sniffing venture capitalists nipple hard-ons. Plants are wilting, the furniture doesn’tmatch, empty cans of Red Bull decorate the premises: There’s no time foranything except work, work, work. Fanning keeps a guitar and a basketballin his office but hasn’t touched them in months. Remarkably, he and Parkerare now mid-level grunts who have to answer to more experienced coworkers. At the moment, his boss is mad at him: So many publications have beenrequesting interviews from him lately that it’s cut into his coding time.

But requests keep coming, because Napster users are so hooked. Onelegendary user built a library of 15,000 songs: another amassed a staggering 17 gigabytes of music. An architect who lived 30 miles away showed upat the offices one day simply because he wanted to meet the people who’dcreated Napster. When the company cosponsored a rave that attracted thousands of people to an Oakland warehouse, its booth was swarmed bydevoted fans. “It’s seriously addictive.” says John Perkins. who feels sostrongly about the program he created the NapsterCult website. “I was awayfrom my computer for a couple weeks, and it was hard to take: it was likegoing through physical withdrawal.”

And then, of course, there are the most impassioned testaments to Napster’s appeal. Last December, the RIAA filed a lawsuit against the companyCharging Napster with “contributory and vicarious copyright infringement.” it wants S100,000 in damages for each copyrighted work that isinfringed. By early 2000, colleges all across the country started to blockNapster in an effort to control skyrocketing bandwidth consumption ontheir networks. At Indiana University, for example, Napster took up 10percent of network resources in November and 50 percent by January. When the campus newspaper announced the impending Napster ban, usage shot up more than 60 percent as students rushed to download asmany songs as they could before the service was cut. At Oxford University in England, Napster was proving especially costly. “Oxford getscharged per byte for transatlantic network use,” says Nick Sweeney, a graduate student there. “So it actually would have been less expensive to buythe students the CDs themselves.”

In the wake of such crackdowns, students fought back. At USC, theydemanded a meeting to craft a compromise. At Indiana University, sophomore Chad Paulson organized Students Against University Censorship toprotest the unilateral Napster ban. “If another program gets that popular, arethey going to ban it too?” asks Paulson, who liked to use Napster to distribute authorized MP3s from labels like Up Records, Dischord, and Kill Rock Stars. “I invited Krist Novoselic to attack this. I’m not sure where he stands on the issue, but I think it’s something he could really sink his teeth into.”

With enemies like the RIAA and the campus bandwith police,who needs a marketing department? Each time someone tries to stop Napster, its buzz just gets louder. But if Napster didn’t make it so easy to get illegal copies of copyright-protected songs, would it really be so popular? Askinterim CEO Eileen Richardson why users find Napster so appealing, andshe talks about community, discovering new music, and Napster’s potentialfor helping new and unsigned bands find an audience. Hence, the nextversion of Napster, the first official release, will feature more community-oriented functionality, including instant messaging, user-created chatrooms, and ways to spotlight new artists.

But for some Napster users, it’s clearly about getting songs they might otherwise have to pay for. “The radio only plays certain songs. and sometimesI don’t want to buy the whole CD,” says Nancy Perschbacher, a student atthe University of Pennsylvania. “Now I can just go get it.”

At $100,000 per illegal download, the size of the RIAA lawsuit would beastronomical. So will the RIAA be able to shut down Napster? Probably not.After all, Napster’s users trade files among themselves. “We never handleany MP3 content ourselves,” Fanning explains, “Napster just links two peopletogether.” At the same time, Napster does warn users that trading unauthorized files is illegal. Beyond that, the company maintains, it has no control overhow people use its service. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA),passed by Congress in 1998, reinforces Napster’s position: It offers “safe harbor” to online sender providers from copyright-infringement claims that arisefrom the activities of their users. To comply with the DMCA, Napster hasposted a notice on its website that promises to “respond expeditiously toclaims of copyright infringement committed using the Napster service.”

If someone does make such a claim, he or she will have to prove an act ofcopyright infringement actually took place. And at the moment, there’s noeasy way to do this, because MP3 files themselves aren’t intrinsically illegal.Anyone who owns a CD can make a legal copy of it, and MP3 files are onepotential way to do that. So if both parties in a Napster-facilitated fileexchange own tire CD in question, has an infringement occurred? Are copyright holders going to examine the CD collections of everyone who usesNapster? Is Napster itself supposed to do this? The courts have essentiallyalready ruled that a consumer’s right to make legal copies of something through a new technology outweighs that technology’s potential threat ofpiracy. (That’s why VCRs and CD burners. both unsuccessfully challengedin court as tools of copyright infringement, are legal.) Ironically, some seeNapster as an antipiracy tool. “The thing that’s not obvious to most peoplewho use Napster is that it basically says who has what music posted where,”says Gene Hoffman Jr., CEO of digital music site EMusic. “If you’re a labeland you want to stop people from illegally using your stuff, you go onNapster to find out who’s distributing what.”

But all of that may be missing the point. The sort of frenetic music-sharingthat happens on Napster is much different than traditional music piracy, somaybe the RLAA should consider it viral marketing instead of a crime. “Rightnow, the record industry is a $40 billion business,” Richardson says, “But wetruly believe it’s going to turn into a $100 billion business. And the way that’sgoing to happen is that more people are going to get exposed to more artists.The RIAA needs to admit, ‘Hey, we don’t understand what’s going on hereon the Internet. Maybe we should try to work with the people who do.’ “

In fact, Napster’s future basically depends on such hopes. As hot as Napster is, it currently has no revenues, much less profits. And as it develops abusiness model, its most obvious potential revenue streams come from moretraditional enterprise. “We’re choosing a partner today to sell albumsthrough the site,” says Richardson, eager to prove that Napster will increaserecord sales rather than cannibalize them. And plenty of fans insist that thisis exactly how they use the site. “I’ll listen to a few tracks before I decide tobuy the CD,” says Jonny Gerow, a Napster user from Tampa, Florida, whoused to run his own MP3 download site until Time Warner shut it down.

“I want liner notes: I want a tangible good. I want to own the physical CD.”

Eileen Richardson & Sean Parker (Photo: John Popplewell)

But who are there more of? The Napster fans who will end up spendingmore on music because of the program, or the ones who will spend less?Right now. the future of the record industry is so wide open, no can reallypredict how it will all sort out. In fact, what’s really revolutionary about Napster is that it’s not just the traditional record industry that it threatens.”Traffic on the MP3 search engines has definitely gone down since Napster came out,” says a source who works at one of the oldest MP3 portals.”It used to be all about, but not anymore. That’s why you see othersites scrambling to develop Napster-like applications of their own.”

In other words, any company involved in music distribution and aggregation — record labels, MP3 portals, even Napster itself — grows more dispensableas individuals equip themselves with an increasing number of tools to collectand disseminate digital information to each other. Already there’s a public-domain version of Napster called OpenNap — anyone who wants to can use itto run their own Napster-like file-exchange service. CuteMX, iMesh, are available too. (Along with MP3s, these programs allowyou to find and exchange all sorts of file types — which intensely scares anyonewho traffics in intellectual property. Soon, the TV, movie, and porn industries may be filing lawsuits of their own as Napster-style applications areused to brazenly distribute everything from bootleg copies of The Simpsonsto term papers and class notes.) So what if the RIAA’s lawsuit effectively shutsdown Napster? Or what if, in the process of commercializing its service.Napster itself makes changes its users don’t like? With so many easy new waysto find MP3s on the Web, it probably doesn’t matter.

Sooner or later, the record industry may actually decide that Napsterdoes offer the best way to reach music fans in the increasingly decentralizedworld of online music. In the meantime, users intuitively understand theapplication’s appeal. “Napster sent us all into a musical renaissance atwork,” says Allison Garber, a Web designer who works in New York City.”It spread like wildfire, bringing back memories of making mix tapes in sixthgrade. But now it’s digital; now it’s quick and easy and global. It sure beatssitting by the radio with a tape recorder waiting for that song to come on soI can make my gritty recording.”

The radio?