A the dawn of the new millennium, Napster was at the forefront of a huge shakeup of the music industry. Suddenly, every song you’d ever imagined listening to was available for free. The 60s had free love, but we had free tunes, and it was a dream come true.
I’m counting Napster along with the other influential albums, because, to be honest, it (and its other P2P contemporaries) did more to inform me about music than any single album could. The days of paying $20 for a few songs, and hoping that the rest of the album was decent, were officially over. The only real barrier for entry left, was how much patience you had for dial-up internet.
I first heard about Napster in the spring of 2000, from the same friend that introduced me to Fat Music Vol. IV. He told tales of a computer program that let people download, and share all the music in the world. To top it all off, the entire thing was free. The whole idea seemed too crazy to be true, but I couldn’t wait to try it out.
The program itself was really user friendly. The simplicity of just typing in the name of the artist/song you wanted, then having it just show up was pretty mind blowing at the time. You’d get a list of results arranged by audio quality, and whatever connection speed the uploader was running on. Normally it would make the most sense to go with the highest sound quality, but there was a bit of a catch back then. High quality meant bigger file sizes, and bigger file sizes meant longer download times. Now, patience was only part of it. The biggest concern was that the longer something was downloading, the more likely it was that someone would call your house, and instantly kill your internet connection. Downloading “Stairway to Heaven” can get pretty stressful, when it’s your 20th try, it’s 90% downloaded, and you’re positive that your grandmother’s going to call at any second.
Putting the technical limitations aside, Napster gave me an unheard of freedom to discover new artists and genres. It even had a built in chat, with different rooms for more genres of music than I’d even heard of at that point. An innocent question of, “What is Ska?” in the Ska chat room resulted in an impromptu essay about what Ska “means”, from someone that I can only assume, was the founder of the hipster movement.
Those first few months of using Napster were pretty incredible. Even people with 14.4kbit connections were happily sharing their music collections with the world. The legality of the whole thing never really occured to me at the time. I mean, this was before Metallica let us know that, surprisingly enough, all this swapping of copyrighted material might be considered piracy by some.
The popular idea at the time was that Napster was costing the music industry a fortune. I can’t speak for everybody, but if it wasn’t for Napster, the record company execs would be walking around with a lot less of my money in their pockets. Without the financial barrier for entry, I was free to check out a ton of bands that I’d heard of, but wasn’t really familiar with. Bands like Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Eagles, The Who, Green Day…. Bands that I’d go on to spend a good chunk of real, honest-to-goodness cash on.
With all this newfound music, I set out to develop my own version of the Big Shiny Tunes series. Soup Mix volumes 1-4 (and its spinoff brand, Soup’s Punk Mix) were an ever evolving anthology series, that gave a pretty good snapshot of my musical tastes at the time. Mostly consisting of equal amounts The Offspring, AC/DC, and Goldfinger, the mixes would go on to bring in more genres and artists over time.
I didn’t own a CD burner at the time, so I had to get a friend of mine to actually burn the CDs. Since there was a charge of $10, and a lengthy bike ride associated with the creation of each Soup Mix, I put a lot of time into the pre-burn process. After designing the cover art, I’d spend hours writing out all the songs I wanted, then doing some hardcore math to whittle down the run-times to come under that 80 minute mark.
Once the songs were picked, I started to really focus on flow. Taking extra care to make sure that the transition from one track to another was never jarring, no matter how many genres and tempos I wanted to cram on there. Lagwagon and Buffalo Springfield don’t just go together without a bit of planning after all.
Napster wouldn’t last forever, but Kazaa and Morpheus picked up the slack for the remainder of high school. Gradually the music sharing scene lost that bohemian spirit of music for everyone, and became a bit more about surprise viruses and spyware. It was nice while it lasted though.