When file-trading service Napster was peaking in 2000, I was entering my freshman year at a university where each dorm room came outfitted with new, juicy broadband connections, ideal for transferring large digital files. Nearly all of my friends habitually used services such as Napster, burning digital songs to blank CDs. I knew very few people who still purchased music, even in 2000. Multiple record stores in my Minneapolis college district closed in my four years there.
I pirated hundreds of songs during my college years, but I sensed disposability and devaluation infecting my relationship with music. Logging on to a file-sharing service was part of an addictive cycle. At the end of each downloading session, the disappointment of a still unfulfilled and unquenched desire followed. “Free” music and its perfect abundance felt awfully cheap in the final analysis.
It was an exercise in hyper-consumption: quantity over quality, breadth over depth, entitlement over ownership. Intuiting that my classic relationship with music (paying for it) was indeed more spiritually profitable, and a hell of a lot more interesting and fun, I mostly stopped pirating when my online service of choice, Audiogalaxy, was shut down in 2002.
Anyone in my generation, though, who paid attention to the litigious battles between Napster and the Recording Industry Association of America instinctively gleaned that nothing was less hip than getting uptight about music piracy. Doing so aligned one with multi-millionaire artists, greedy major labels, corporate scallywags and thick-skulled Luddites.
I also assumed new digital models were emerging to replace the revenue of physical music sales. They had to be emerging, right? Considering all the capital and brainpower invested in the industry’s future, solutions would need to come sooner rather than later. In my mind, the controversy over piracy evidenced a healthy period of technological transition.
Piracy was arguably a positive development. It helped promotion-starved small artists connect with fans, threatening the unjust monopoly of bloated major labels. I didn’t hear of any independent artists raising their voices on the issue. Plenty of great new records continued to be released each year. How bad could piracy be?
The Greenpoint café where I worked in north Brooklyn, slinging espressos, was frequented by members of various Brooklyn bands such as TV On The Radio, The Hold Steady, Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer, and MGMT.
I saw the cyclonic press coverage of these artists, the breathless critical praise, and the sold-out dates around the country. In the sphere of indie rock, they were in the upper echelon – either one step away from being on a major label or already succeeding on one. These were the success stories of the internet age, supposed poster children for the triumphs of file sharing. But from my ground-level vantage point in Brooklyn – away from the Rolling Stone reviews, SPIN cover stories, and profiles in the New York Times – all was not as it appeared on the mediated surface.
After getting to know a handful of members from some of these bands, I was shocked by how little money they seemed to be making. As a measly young writer and part-time barista who had never even heard of a trust fund before moving east, even I had an apartment – that paramount symbol of fortune in New York City – as nice or nicer than some of these “rock stars”.
My peers, 20-something rock disciples and aspiring songwriters, obtained nearly all of their music by downloading unlicensed copies for free online, often well before album release dates. They rarely went to concerts or bought band merchandise such as T-shirts or posters, rationalisations I’d heard others express for their downloading habits.
Millions of fans, such as my friends, had decided they no longer saw a reason to pay for the music they genuinely enjoyed and loved.