How Napster Launched The Digital Music Gold Rush

11.30.15 2 years ago

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Fifteen years ago, Napster – the first of many services to allow digital-music downloads – reached an agreement with BMG. This meant that, for the first time, it would be possible for people to legally download music from the service. Of course, the entire concept of digital downloading as a whole was just beginning; in the time since this agreement was reached, digital downloading has evolved considerably. The template set by Napster has been raised time and time again, as downloading and streaming music over the internet has gotten far more convenient since 2000. As the technology advanced, the music industry has had no choice but to adapt.

Despite the BMG agreement, Napster was still being sued by several other music labels, and they initially ceased operations in September 2002, but that didn’t stop many other similar programs from emerging in its wake. There were Kazaa, Limewire, and several others, all full of free music files put forth by their users, with increasingly convenient interfaces. As this phenomenon carried on, every once in a while you would hear about someone being fined an exorbitant amount of money, or even facing serious jail time for downloading music illegally (which South Park memorably mocked in the “Christian Rock Hard” episode), but all of those people felt like rather unfortunate exceptions to the rule. Unless you were extremely unlucky enough to get caught, you could get away with downloading as much music as you wanted without paying a cent.

Of course, that wasn’t for everyone. Plenty of people were understandably averse to the risk of serving hard time for downloading a few Metallica songs, and several others felt genuinely guilty about essentially stealing an artist’s work, even if the artist in question was most assuredly rich enough to afford it. Many of these people, however, were nonetheless appreciative of the idea of having all their music was right on their computer instead of in endless stacks of compact discs. That’s why as the illegal downloading business was booming, there was also plenty of cash to be made from people who were willing to pay to download music legally. iTunes was the most clear example of this. It had an easy to navigate, streamlined format, and any song you downloaded could be transported to your iPod, allowing for maximum convenience. Maybe the Limewire crowd thought you were a sucker for being willing to pay for music, but iTunes users got a lot out of the experience, and it appeared as though the music industry would be able to easily adjust to the era of digital downloading.

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