It’s 2004. MP3s are here, and Internet music piracy is an unstoppable juggernaut. A 13-year-old millennial (whose music taste was primarily dictated by what appeared on Saturday morning’s CD:UK) was about to have his ears awakened to a whole new world.
Discovered initially as background music on a website I was browsing as a child; Disposable Heroes, track five on arguably the greatest heavy metal record of all time – 1986’s Master of Puppets. It’s not a short track; Internet speeds and MP3 quality were not too great back then either, but I persevered on that website to listen to the entire thing.
Relentless rip-roaring guitars. Powerful, meaningful lyrics. Speed and ferocity, unlike anything I had ever heard on TV and radio before. I had no idea what this song was, or who recorded it, but I knew I loved it. So I googled the lyrics (90s children have it good) and discovered my new favourite band was Metallica.
If it wasn’t for some chance encounter on a website I can’t even remember, it might not have had the same impact, or I may not have discovered them at all. As a modern consumer of music, I feel very fortunate to be given the freedom to explore and discover music that is not necessarily marketed to my demographic.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. My favourite band (along with a majority of the record industry) took time to embrace the changes the Internet brought with it.
MP3 changed the world
During the early days of the Internet, storing music on your hard drive was a struggle. Hard drive space was limited and file sizes for popular audio file formats, such as the WAV file, were massive.
This didn’t change until the late 90s, when the MP3 coding format became widely available. MP3 used ‘lossy’ data compression to encode music. Lossy compression removes data from the track that may not be obvious to the human ear, to dramatically decrease the size of the file.
The new format was revolutionary, and music fans were waking up to the potential, especially brothers Shawn and John Fanning, along with Sean Parker; creators of the infamous file-sharing platform, Napster.
What was Napster?
Napster, released in 1999, was a peer-to-peer file-sharing application that allowed music enthusiasts to share MP3 files between their machines on a global scale.
It didn’t take long for Napster to begin wreaking havoc upon the record industry, as users were sharing copyrighted music, free of charge, and it was accessible to anybody with a Windows computer (and later Mac) and an internet connection.
Ultimately, this led to Internet music piracy hitting the mainstream news in 2000, when Napster became embroiled in a major court case with the record industry, the first being Metallica v. Napster, Inc.
Metallica vs. Napster
Metallica first caught wind of Napster when a demo of a song they recorded for the film Mission Impossible II was being played on radio stations across the US without their knowledge. The origin of the leaked track, I Disappear, was traced back to the file-sharing program, where they found their entire discography available for download, for free.
Perhaps to the chagrin of fans, the face of the lawsuit was Lars Ulrich, co-founder and drummer of Metallica. Critics dismissed Lars and Metallica as being ‘out of touch’ and ‘greedy’, after all, Lars was a millionaire who was threatening to sue his fans. However, this was a massive breach of copyright, unlike any seen before.
In a 2007 interview with Y92, a radio station in New York, Lars offered some perspective into the artist’s point of view:
“We were all tape traders, and we were totally pro all this stuff. Why did nobody from Napster call and go, ‘Are you okay with us doing this?’, because then it was a conversation, but they did this without checking in with us, and that was the part that we couldn’t understand.
That was where I think we could have educated ourselves better about how all of this worked and what it meant to people, because all of a sudden, we were standing out there, and then people were, like, ‘Metallica, they’re really greedy and money hungry,’ and it had nothing to do with money whatsoever. It was just about, ‘If we’re going to give away our music, which we don’t mind doing, maybe we should do it, or maybe somebody should ask our permission.’ That was it.
Then that back alley street fight went public worldwide and then we were completely caught off guard.”
Regardless of motives, if your work is being stolen, you have every right to fight it – and fight it they did, Metallica won the case.
Napster was ordered by the judge to implement a filter to block Metallica’s music from being distributed on the platform, remove any of their existing music from the service and ban the 300,000 users who had shared their music.
Eventually, Napster was sued by other artists and labels, such as Dr Dre, which resulted in the service being shut down (until it re-opened as a legal service later).
Losing the war
So, why didn’t widespread MP3 sharing stop there? The problem was the winds of change had already blown in gale force. The rise of the Internet and the portability of the MP3 file type meant that music could be downloaded easily, and as Internet speeds got faster, the process became a lot quicker too.
I mean, why would you pay £14.99 for an album when you could download it for free? Well, it’s illegal – or was it? Was trading mix tapes illegal? How was file sharing any different?
The grey areas were apparent, and it simply wasn’t as cut and dry as Kid Rock’s tongue-in-cheek “steal everything” tirade in the 00s:
It was clear the industry was changing; in fact, it had already changed. Whether the record labels liked it not, they needed to adapt or run risk of being left behind.
The Napster case was a ‘deer in the headlights’ response from a changing industry, the status-quo was changing.
Years later, Lars admitted he regrets the way he went about particular aspects of the lawsuit (specifically delivering the users names), but Metallica’s actions after the lawsuit shows how you can successfully adapt to changes in business. In the 00s, Metallica began to completely embrace the digital model, and in many ways, they broke new ground.
Since the dispute, the band has made it’s music available on all the major legal music platforms we have today, such as iTunes, Spotify and most recently, the now-legal Napster. In fact, since the lawsuit, Lars patched things up with Napster creator Sean Parker and they remain good friends (Lars even attended his wedding!).
Back in 2004, Metallica launched livemetallica.com, a website dedicated to bringing downloadable live shows to their fans. This was an incredible innovation that brought their fans closer to the band than ever. Every live show since the site launched in 2004 has been professionally recorded by their team and available for download on the site (there is even a streaming service for it now).
On their most recent ‘WorldWired’ tour, they offered a free download of each concert for all the fans that attend it. By using a code bundled with their ticket, fans can download the show, in full, usually two or three days after the concert has taken place.
Lars states this was a logical progression from their taper sections at live shows, where they would actively enthusiasts to bring along their taping equipment and trade tapes with other fans.
The biggest embrace came during the recording of their 2008 album ‘Death Magnetic’. Metallica launched a online service, ‘Mission Metallica’:
Screenshot from Mission Metallica in 2008.
The site allowed fans to follow the recording of the album with videos and snippets available – they also offered a free album download of the album to fans upon it’s completion.
Many bands adapted to the changes quicker than others. Some artists, such as Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, who welcomed digital by releasing their In Rainbows album as ‘pay what you want’, with optional, deluxe packages being available for purchase.
Bands now often use their new albums to attract people to their live shows, providing pre-sale access with album purchases, or even providing their latest record for free with ticket or merchandise sales.
Capturing a new generation
Despite all the discussion surrounding piracy, it was often easy to overlook the benefits of the digitalisation of the music industry.
The availability of single tracks, outside of specially selected singles from a record label.
Discovering new bands we would have never heard of (especially with the automated curation seen in Spotify or Apple Music).
The sheer portability of music (1000 songs in your pocket, as the iPod was once marketed as) meant you were no longer limited to listening to the same tapes in the car, or the same CD on your walkman.
While profits may be harder to come by, perhaps in some respects, more emphasis on the marketing process is in the hands of the budding musicians, rather than record labels.
Finding creative ways to market your music is in some ways becoming an art form in itself.
How digitalisation led to meeting Metallica
I suppose it would be also be easy to dismiss the newest generation of music fans as being ‘freeloaders’. When I first heard ‘Disposable Heroes’ in 2004, the website I was browsing was actually breaching copyright by hosting and broadcasting it.
However, quite ironically, this ultimately led to me buying all Metallica albums on CD, numerous t-shirts, joining the fan club, seeing the band on tour multiple times and finally, meeting them during their WorldWired tour in Manchester, June 2019.
My partner and I had already seen Metallica a few times before, but this time we decided to purchase an enhanced package, which included access to their travelling roadshow of band memorabilia (including playable instruments), ‘snakepit’ access (right in front of the stage) and most excitingly – the opportunity to meet the band.
We had been eagerly anticipating the day for months when it finally arrived. We began by embracing our fandom at roadshow in the arena, titled the ‘Sanitarium Rubber Room’. It was an impressive collection of old setlists, original lyric notes, famous stage props and a brilliant array of playable instruments.
When it was time to see the band, the twelve of us lucky enough to take part in the experience were escorted to the backstage area where we would meet the band. They say “never meet your heroes”, but I’d advise the opposite, it was a fantastic moment and brilliantly organised.
We were given a good 10-15 minutes with each band member, who were engaging, interested in what we had to say and incredibly laid back. I wasn’t particularly interested in getting things signed, but we brought along a gig scrapbook we maintain for each of the concerts we go to and shared stories with them.
When I spoke to Lars, I asked him what songs they were planning to play on the night. “What would you like us to play?” he answered. I tell him how I discovered them, and that I have a real soft spot for ‘Disposable Heroes’, my first song. He smiled and told me he’d see what he could do.
After we’d met the band, we were taken to the snakepit, the holy grail of Metallica gig spots. As it was limited to a number of people, for the first time in my life, I could move around near the front of the stage, it was a very surreal experience.
Early in the set, they start chugging away on the guitars to a familiar riff, they’d only gone and played Disposable Heroes!
The whole show was incredible, at one point the heavens opened and it began pouring down for around 6 songs or so – this only added to the atmosphere of the show (how did they carry on playing?), but it was when they played my favourite song that I realised the journey had come full circle, and if it wasn’t for that brief moment of chance on a website visited 15 years ago, things may have been very different.
Embracing change is part of the challenges we face every day in business, and even if you make mistakes, you learn and you grow. How the music industry has been impacted by digitalisation is phenomenal, but change is coming all the time – it’s how we respond to these changes that brings success.