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Everything is impossible until it's not: June edition

Before you streamed podcasts or downloaded music onto iTunes, there was one disruptive idea that changed everything. This month, we look at Napster.


Everything is impossible — until it isn’t. At Strike, we’re looking back on disruptive moments that changed the world. From technology that has shaped our lives to feats of human strength and resilience that were never thought possible, every month we’ll bring you a moment in history that changed everything.

In the days before Spotify and iTunes, listening to music meant heading to your local high-street store to shift through shelves of CDs, or waiting by the radio for your favourite chart-topper to come on. But all that was about to change. In the age of MTV, Discmans and CD shops, something came along to revolutionise not just the way a generation of teenagers listened to music, but also the way a whole industry operated. On June 1st, 1999 the online music site Napster was born. This month we celebrate the download platform that took the internet by storm – and its influence is still evident today.

Revolutionising music

In the late 90s, downloading music from the internet was a tricky and unreliable business. On a good day it was frustratingly time-consuming, on a bad day it simply didn’t work. When Napster arrived on the scene, all this changed. Founded by university students Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, Napster allowed its users to trade MP3 music software on a centralised site. It was quick, it was easy to use and – crucially – it was completely free. Bad news for music companies and artists, morally dubious (more on that later), but undeniably disruptive.

Every type of music genre was featured on the platform, from chart toppers to rare albums — all of which had been digitised into MP3 format from analog cassette tapes, vinyl records and CDs. 

Unsurprisingly, the site quickly gained huge popularity and at its height approximately 80 million users were registered to its network.

It was so popular, in fact, that a number of colleges and universities made a move to block the use of Napster on their campuses because the sheer number of students sharing music on the site congested the college networks. By the summer of 2000, a whopping estimated 14,000 songs were being downloaded every minute. Napster was on a promising trajectory and its soaring success was, seemingly, unstoppable. But all that was about to change. 

“They didn’t see it coming”

By the spring of 2000 things were starting to look a little different. The wide popularity of the Napster proved a serious challenge to the music industry – whose main source of revenue came from the sale of CDs. As music journalist and author Steve Knopper discusses

“If you wanted that one good song that you’d heard on the radio, you had to go and spend 15 to 18 American dollars on a CD to get it. And the music industry liked that system…It was hubris. They didn’t see it coming. They didn’t see the technology, and when they did, they took every step they could to blot it out of existence.”

By April 2000, Napster found itself at the receiving end of a series of lawsuits filed by a number of music artists including The Chambers Brothers, Metallica and Dr. Dre. These lawsuits alleged that Napster had infringed copyright laws, with Dr. Dre’s lawsuit claiming that nearly 240,000 fans had traded his songs illegally on the site. 

And by February 2001 things came to a head and a lawsuit filed by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) forced Napster to close by the July of that year. The site was soon replaced by a paid subscription site, but, unsurprisingly, this proved much less popular with users. By the next year Napster was forced to file for bankruptcy and had to liquidate its assets – its heyday was officially over.

Despite its short-lived success and sticky end, Napster’s influence on the music industry is undeniable. There’s no doubt that its impact on the way we consume and listen to music has been seismic. Without Napster, we may not have the music streaming giants we have today, who have dominated the industry and brought new music to millions worldwide. For this, and for changing the course of music streaming as we know it, Napster rightfully has its place in the history books.

We're always looking to dream bigger and find ways to make the impossible possible. Next month, we'll be back with another moment that changed everything.