Metallica v. Napster, Inc. 15 years later: Lars, forgive me
Fifteen years ago today, a suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California that shifted the fate of a beloved rock band and unearthed a series of issues surrounding digital music that still resonate.
The name of the suit was Metallica v. Napster, Inc.
Though the case officially ended 15 months later when Napster reached a settlement with Metallica (as well as Dr. Dre, who sued Napster shortly after Metallica did), though pretty much everybody walked away a loser. Napster essentially litigated into submission and forced to liquefy its assets following a bankruptcy filing, and Metallica (and drummer Lars Ulrich in particular) spent years trying to walk back the case in an effort to reverse the narrative that they had turned on their own fans.
That was unfair, but kind of true. The catalyst for Metallica’s awareness of Napster was a song called “I Disappear,” which appeared on the soundtrack to Mission: Impossible II. “I Disappear” was set to be a big deal, as it was rumored to be a “return to form” for the band after several years of ZZ Top-channeling boogie metal (1996’s Load and 1997’s ReLoad, both of which remain criminally underrated), experimenting with covers (1998’s Garage Inc., a two-disc affair that brought together most all of the band’s recordings of other people’s songs), and a curious live experiment with the San Francisco Symphony (1999’s quirky S&M). Based on the rumors running through a still-nascent Internet and the teasers played on MTV, “I Disappear” seemed like it was going to sound like the Metallica everyone had obsessed over in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
In fact, fervor over “I Disappear” was so intense that it actually found its way onto Napster, the peer-to-peer file-sharing service. Not only did it show up well before its intended release date (the aforementioned MTV had been plugging its video premiere way in advance), but according to Metallica, the version that ended up on Napster was not even finished. But because nobody knew that at the time and digital leaks were still a relatively new thing, the song got played on rock radio and became one of the most-downloaded tracks in the history of Napster.
All these years later, I’d like to publicly apologize to Metallica, because I was definitely part of the problem. Like any fan, I was seriously looking forward to the release of “I Disappear,” and when Kurt Loder reported that the song was floating around Napster, I immediately ran to the family computer to install the software. My experience with downloading music up to that point was limited to WAV files I would suck down and then assign to various actions in AOL (any time I received an Instant Message, I got audio of Neil Armstrong saying, “The eagle has landed”), but I was immediately hooked on Napster. Suddenly, most all of music history was before me, and all those Ramones albums from the ‘80s that were more or less out of print at the time were suddenly available to me for free. All it took was a double-click and the patience of a monk—on my dial-up connection, it generally took 40 minutes to download a single three-minute song. “I Disappear” clocks in at 4:26, so it was an hour before I could finally press play on it. It ended up not quite being a return to form (for Metallica, that journey would come later), but it did rock pretty hard, and I was happy to have new material from one of my favorite bands.
I also thought Napster was awesome, though so many of my favorite artists were rallying against it, I was filled with guilt any time I used it. But I was particularly angry at Ulrich, who went to Napster’s offices a few weeks after filing the lawsuit with the intention of delivering the names of roughly 300,000 users who had downloaded Metallica songs and demanding their accounts be terminated. I assumed I was among those rolls, as I had been enjoying “I Disappear” (as well several live bootlegs of “Hit The Lights”). He seemed stubborn and greedy, a spoiled, aging rocker unwilling to embrace new technology in favor of yelling at clouds instead.
Of course, years later, I wish we had all listened to Lars. Once people started believing music piracy was a reasonable thing to do, that toothpaste remained out of that tube forever. Napster gave me a gateway to stuff I did not have access to, but it also criminally de-valued music, a development from which the industry has never recovered (and probably never will, in all honesty). Lars was the canary in the coal mine, and everybody is worse off because we didn’t listen to him about the dangers of Napster and its ilk.
Jay Z is the latest canary. At the recent launch of his streaming service Tidal, he gathered together some hugely famous names (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Chris Martin, Daft Punk) to drum up support for the idea of doing away with free streaming options in exchange for higher fidelity audio and the promise that artists would see more money on the back end. Jay and his cohorts have been dismissed as the out-of-touch one percent, concerned more with their own bottom lines than raising up the rest of the industry. But his goal of adding value back to music despite its ubiquitous availability is both noble and important. “The thing that I’m paying attention to with the launch of Tidal is less around the economics and less about what it means for the average Joe, because it probably won’t mean s—, but rather whether exclusivity and curation have a value in this new economy,” says Casey Rae, CEO of the Future of Music Coalition. “Music, for some reason, feels different—it occupies a different place in the cultural conversation than TV or movies. The real debate is what is the value of music and what platforms are the best at presenting that value?”
Ulrich hasn’t quite walked back his stance since going after Napster, though he has done a nice job clarifying his stance over the years (or maybe history has simply shifted to his side). His greatest exoneration came in 2013 with the documentary Downloaded, an excellent film that tracks the rise and fall of Napster and the fallout of the digital revolution. Little has changed in 15 years: Music continues to be de-valued, piracy remains rampant, leaks are still a problem, and “I Disappear” still rules. One thing that has changed: I feel bad about downloading Metallica songs (and everyone else’s, really). I’m sorry, Lars. Please don’t dub me unforgiven.