RIP Napster

December 7, 2011

Napster wallpaper by Groovy Themes

By Stephen Feller

“I had friends who used Limewire in 9th grade and followed music blogs to see when songs came out. I always wonder how people found out how new songs came out before the Internet. I was born in ‘91, so it was, like, ‘98, ‘99 when the Internet started getting big,”
-Lionel Boyce, aka L-Boy of Odd Future, in December’s issue of Spin Magazine.

Those are words from a member of one of hip-hop’s new creative centers. He and the other members of his group are probably too young to know that their business model pays homage to the original Internet Music search engine — Napster.

Napster in a very short time changed everything. Especially considering that Limewire paled in comparison to it’s breathtaking forefather.

As of Dec. 1, Napster ceased to exist. It was formally absorbed into Rhapsody, the music streaming service that maintains enough users to stay in business but wows exactly nobody the way other online music services, namely Spotify, have.

Nothing will compare to summer and fall ’99, when I was a college freshman, and word of a program that made it easy to find any song you could think of — ANY SONG YOU CAN THINK OF — and download it. Instantly.

Napster was a godsend for anybody who moved to school with about 1,000 compact discs in tow – I couldn’t leave home without the essentials – let alone your average college kid looking for something to shake the windows. The glory of Napster spread through dorms and apartments like wildfire. The greatest online music service in history quickly established itself as a major center of my online life.

Then the record companies figured it out. They flipped and shut the party down, but the damage was done. The industry had shifted. Sure, I bought plenty more discs, as did most of the world. But I paid for a lot more vinyl, because most of the time I’d already downloaded the mp3s of whatever album I was looking for.

Today’s biggest pop stars are being created, just as they were a decade ago, but the majors are falling all over themselves to get it done. Rihanna’s huge hits are being created at a cost of about $1 million apiece and almost every big album, with the exception of Adele’s “21,” requires a train of big singles in order to stick around. That, quite simply, is because nobody bothers going into record stores any more, and not just because most of them have closed.

With the advent of music blogs, the record store clerk, of which I was also one, was no longer the person to turn to for the records worth the time of a discerning listener. Now, everybody has access. As soon as an album goes to the plant for pressing, or sooner, that shit gets uploaded for the masses. The obsessives post and write and promote, usually without being paid, because they love it.

Which is the part the major labels missed.

Odd Future, the slow-growing Southern California hip-hop collective, is entirely a product of the Internet generation and has known only this way of discovering, sharing and geeking out over not just music, but art and entertainment as a whole. As a result, they’ve mastered what is a relatively simple way of reaching new fans by using all tools available – including major labels.

Bands like Pearl Jam, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have invested serious time in making it worthwhile to be a fan and making it worth it to pay for their work, in addition to merchandise and concert tickets. They’ve done so because they know that a dedicated fan will always spend that money, no matter how they hear the music. They bare the bands who are willing to risk you not paying for their studio output in hopes that you’ll become an actual, honest-to-god fan, and that’s why Trent Reznor spent his last two tours telling fans to steal the record online and just come out to the show. He gets it, because he’s a fan.

Spotify, MOG (of which I’m a subscriber), Rhapsody, Rdio and the plethora of pure streaming options – which doesn’t include stores like iTunes, Amazon and Google Music – simply can’t compare to Napster. Napster, in addition to all the stuff you expect, was chock full of the bootlegs and rarities and mashups and random craziness that the major labels never got hip to. For that, you still need the rest of the Internet, which is how the majors want it, unfortunately.

This, then, is an elegy to what could have been. Most of those college kids, myself included, would have paid $10 or $15 a month for access. It was worth it. Not that my $10 for MOG isn’t, but I also maintain a Google Music account, for all the stuff I want to listen to that isn’t an official release.

How else do you think I’ve heard most of the discography of Odd Future? I downloaded it for free, some even from the group itself, because they want me to be a fan. The idea is that I’ll, eventually, send them money.

And I will.

I’d rather give my actual money to the bands anyway, since the only thing the majors have attempted to do to me in the last decade was destroy the greatest gift to music ever: Access.

Stephen Feller is the editor of One Stupid Mop,