Prior to the start of the new millennium, streaming music over the internet was like the Wild West. Disorganised services and a lack of true understanding from the general public meant that there were no laws in place, no regulations to be found, and no precedent for what was considered legal or illegal. It was a wonderful time for the free dispersion of music… unless you were an artist who felt like they were getting cheated out of money.
Most artists would have been unwilling to take a stand for themselves, likely due to the perception of being a millionaire who was trying to squeeze every last dollar out of the general public. One musician who clearly wasn’t afraid of that perception was Lars Ulrich, drummer and songwriter for thrash metal gods Metallica. Ulrich spearheaded what was the first major fight against illegal streaming when he and Metallica filed a lawsuit against peer-to-peer file-sharing behemoth Napster.
“I don’t have a problem with any artist voluntarily distributing his or her songs through any means the artist elects—at no cost to the consumer if that’s what the artist wants. But just like a carpenter who crafts a table gets to decide whether to keep it, sell it or give it away, shouldn’t we have the same options?” Ulrich testified in the Metallica v. Napster, Inc. case held before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “My band authored the music which is Napster’s lifeblood. We should decide what happens to it, not Napster.”
Now, was Ulrich wrong in his intentions? Absolutely not. In fact, in an age where modern artists are having to actively fight against services like Spotify (allegedly) funnelling streaming funds back into their own pockets via “fake artists”, Ulrich’s push for musicians to be adequately compensated for their art seems downright noble. But that’s not how it appeared at the time. In 2000, Ulrich looked greedy and indignant, stripping away access to music and demanding what seemed like undue profits.
Ulrich’s insistence on pushing Napster to its breaking point was an unintended precursor to another future internet phenomenon: The Streisand Effect. Initially, Metallica sued Napster for $10million, looking to recuperate $100,000 for each illegal download. That meant that the band were only suing Napster for 100 downloads of their song ‘I Disappear’. But when Metallica hired a third-party firm to track the dispersion of their songs across Napster, they found that more than 300,000 users were sharing their songs without proper payment going back to the band.
Thanks to Metallica’s lawsuit, Napster was ordered to filter out the band’s songs or be shut down within 72 hours. The site complied, but the floodgates were now open. A series of major music corporations and record companies filed their own lawsuits against Napster, with most labels joining in on the 2001 case A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc. By 2002, Napster officially filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, forcing the company to liquidate its assets.
As a result of Metallica V. Napster, Inc., legal peer-to-peer file sharing essentially went the way of the dodo. Instead, illegal file-sharing services became the norm, with Ulrich’s fight to protect his copyright directly leading to the popularity of pirate sites. Once record companies felt like they could control their product, it became about licensing to third parties. Kicked into high gear by iTunes, the real evolution eventually came with Spotify and similar streaming services, which notoriously have their own problematic policies regarding payment to artists.
Was Ulrich wrong to poke the beast and set in motion the current hellscape that artists have to endure? Well, putting trust in Napster likely would have simply led to the same outcome: once it became widely known how many people were using the internet to listen to music, the potential money left on the table for record companies became too large to ignore.