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25 years ago, Napster changed how we listen to music forever

(SOUNDBITE OF TLC SONG, "NO SCRUBS")

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Listening to music was radically different in 1999. There was no streaming back then, so you were expected to buy the albums you wanted. August Brown covers the music industry for the Los Angeles Times. He remembers what it took to listen to a song outside radio stations or on music TV channels like MTV. You needed to buy compact discs or cassettes.

AUGUST BROWN: You were pretty bound by the physical format. You know, people obviously did rip music off of CDs and put them onto your computer that you could make custom mixes for an aspirant loved one. But on the whole, there was still a really tight connection between a physical object and the way that you experienced music in the world.

RASCOE: But all that changed 25 years ago on June 1, 1999, with the launch of Napster, an online platform that let fans upload songs and share them for free - in other words, peer to peer file sharing. And it signaled a sea change in how we consume music, first becoming popular with college students.

BROWN: The advent of high-speed Internet on college campuses, which kind of enabled much faster connections than most people had ever experienced on, you know, dial-up AOL at their homes, and it enabled people to post their music catalogs of MP3s and allow pretty much anyone else that was using Napster to have access to them.

RASCOE: With unlimited access to free music, Napster's impact was immediate.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICKY MARTIN SONG, "LIVIN' THE VIDA LOCA")

BROWN: Within a matter of weeks and months, it instantly became the greatest change in the music industry arguably since the vinyl record.

RASCOE: Brown says Napster also saved fans from needing to buy a full album when they only liked a couple of songs.

BROWN: The idea that you could unbundle individual songs from an album had obviously been around since the beginning of the record industry, but now fans could do that, and they could do it without paying a dime for anything.

RASCOE: Some smaller bands appreciated the exposure they got on Napster. But for bigger artists, Napster spelled lost revenue on album sales, and they fought back.

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "ENTER SANDMAN")

RASCOE: Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich testified before Congress in 2000, telling lawmakers that Napster had essentially, quote, "hijacked" their music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARS ULRICH: We should dec ide what happens to our music, not a company with no rights in our recordings, which has never invested a penny in our music or anything to do with its creation. The choice has been taken away from us.

RASCOE: The band was especially incensed over one of their tracks being available on Napster before it was officially released. Metallica took Napster to court and won. Still, many fans reacted by picking on Ulrich and other artists who criticized Napster, seeing them as defending the interest of big record labels. And while all of that was a quarter of a century ago, the fight between artists and tech companies, which now stream music and make a cut of the profits, is ongoing. But the irony, says Brown, is that public opinion has flipped. Back then, Napster and its subsequent imitators were seen as freeing music for fans who felt nickeled and dimed by record labels with expensive albums. But now...

BROWN: It's the tech industry that has crushed artists. You know, artists have been told for a generation now that, oh, it's better to give your music away for free for marketing purposes, and now they're realizing that they have gotten, you know, the raw end of that deal and are left with, you know, being paid nothing while these big kind of faceless companies, you know, reap all the benefits of advertising on top of that.

RASCOE: Napster did not last long. Legal battles led to its demise just three years after its launch, but its impact on the music industry remains.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "...BABY ONE MORE TIME")

BRITNEY SPEARS: (Singing) Oh, baby, baby...

RASCOE: Fans grew accustomed to getting individual songs for cheap. Apple's music store iTunes became wildly successful selling songs for 99 cents to play on an iPod or your laptop. Today's streaming platforms like Spotify offer a virtually limitless music catalog for a low monthly subscription. But Brown says that Napster's main legacy might be what it taught other tech startups like Uber and Airbnb - that you can disrupt an industry by being ahead of online regulations.

BROWN: I think the real impact of Napster is not just kind of the advent of streaming, but for the broader tech industry at large. They learned that you can just do something self-beneficial, and if you can scale up fast enough, the industry will have to bend to you before the law can catch up to you.

RASCOE: In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "...BABY ONE MORE TIME")

SPEARS: (Singing) ...A sign. Hit me, baby, one more time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.