May 1, 2003
During its brief, whirlwind existence, the file-sharing service Napster smashed rules, tweaked the establishment and allowed its 40 million users to pose as rebels while gorging on free music. Originally a dorm-room project of nineteen-year-old Shawn Fanning, Napster became an overnight sensation and a record-company enemy before immolating like so many other one-hit wonders. Los Angeles Times reporter Joseph Menn tries to capture Napster's inside story in his new book, All the Rave, but his attempt at a rock & roll chronicle comes across more like Muzak. Wall Street Journal partisans who dig reading about the difference between Series A junior and Series C preferred stock in corporate-ownership structures will appreciate Menn's well-reported business tale. But the just-the-facts approach seems to miss the essence of the excitement. For instance, the presumably "holy shit" moment when Shawn and his chat-room buddies realize that their software could doom the record industry is summarized as just "Shawn . . . knew early on that they were pushing the legal envelope. Shawn just didn't think they'd get sued."
Menn lays a lot of the blame for Napster's demise with Shawn's uncle John Fanning, a bungling wanna-be tech mogul who promised his nephew he would handle the company's business affairs. He then claimed a whopping seventy percent of the company's stock for himself and later boasted that he helped invent the product.
There were plenty of other knuckleheaded moves, though: Company leaders never developed a viable business plan and seemed unable to abandon free music. Instead, Napster relied on two Hail Mary attempts to either win a victory in court or persuade Congress change the copyright laws. Neither happened.
Despite its massive popularity, Napster never became a sustainable company, and ultimately failed in its goal of ushering a new age of musical enjoyment that would keep both fans and record labels happy. Menn implies other leaders might have steered Napster successfully, but he never makes clear what they might have done. With digital music today a lively battle between pirate services and restrictive label-endorsed offerings, Napster may be only remembered as a historical footnote; unfortunately, All the Rave won't help its legacy much.