In 1999, music lovers everywhere were given a gift from a 19-year-old college student named Shawn Fanning. Napster was a peer-to-peer file sharing service that was incredibly easy to use. All you had to do was search through the browser for whatever song you wanted, and once you found it, you could download an mp3 from another user. By using the site, you agreed to have your files shared between users, making the application a modern underground version of tape trading. When hard rock stalwarts Metallica discovered the service, its days were numbered.
On April 13, 2000, Metallica sued fans, Napster, and specific colleges that refused to block the service. What happened to Metallica to make them so upset about people who wanted to listen to their music? Were they wrong to get into this feud? Metallica is still dealing with Napster backlash almost two decades after the suit was settled, and the stories of this suit are some of the tastiest morsels of music rivalry stories that have ever been dished out.
It's likely that Metallica's fight against Napster would have been curtailed had a demo of their single from the Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack, "I Disappear," not made its way to the file sharing service. In 2000, a version of the song started ping-ponging around the internet and even made its way to a few radio stations, all before the official version of the track was finished.
After discovering Napster, the band was shocked to find their complete discography available through the site and immediately filed a lawsuit against Napster. Metallica's Lars Ulrich later said the service "hijacked" the band's music. In 2017, Ulrich described the scene when Metallica found out about the leak:
We recorded it in between some touring commitments, and it was gonna be held back till the next summer. And so one day I got a call from Cliff saying 'I Disappear' is being played on 20 radio stations across America, and we're, like, 'How the f*ck is this possible?' And he said there's something called Napster where people can go and share. And we're, like, 'How the hell did they get 'I Disappear'? It lives in our vault somewhere.
While Metallica may have had a glimpse at the current state of digital streaming and the downfall of the late 20th century's paradigm of the music industry, their lawsuit against Napster and its users still made them look like the bad guys in the fight. At the time, they were one of the biggest bands in the world, and here they were going after college kids.
The band didn't ignore the students who were using the service as a way to find new music but instead used their lawsuit to explicitly call them out. The suit states:
The last link in the chain are the end users of the stolen musical works, students of these universities and others who exhibit the moral fiber of common looters loading up shopping carts because ‘everybody else is doing it.'
Even though the lawsuit firmly established Metallica as members of the old guard, unafraid to punish their fans, they didn't care how the legal fight made them look. To this day, they haven't backed down from their position against the company. In 2018, guitarist Kirk Hammet told Swedish TV show Nyhetsmorgon:
The whole Napster thing – it didn’t do us any favors whatsoever. But you know what? We’re still in the right on that — we’re still right about Napster, no matter who’s out there who’s saying, ‘Metallica was wrong.’ All you have to do is look at the state of the music industry, and that kind of explains the whole situation right there.
For all of the bile and anger that Metallica dished out to Napster, they never claimed to be anti-technology. In fact, many of the band's quotes on the subject of downloading were very forward-thinking at the time. Their issue wasn't with downloading, it was with the fact that they weren't being paid. In July 2000, Ulrich told Congress:
Napster hijacked our music without asking. They never sought our permission. Our catalog of music simply became available for free downloads on the Napster system.
In an online chat with fans, the band reiterated that they were all for a structured distribution process for digital media, but they were unsure of how to proceed. When asked about the "conclusive falloff" of album sales due to Napster, then-bassist Jason Newstead explained:
As fast as the computer thing is growing, what happens when it develops, what could this become? That is what we are trying to stop from happening, something both the artists and the fans couldn't handle. There has to be some control... The future - it takes a long time for laws to pass - it takes a long time for these rules to come into play. It has to start somewhere. It is about what is in the future. We want to keep playing music for people along with other artists.
When Metallica sued Napster, the lines between new and old media were drawn. Rolling Stone, the magazine of old guard musicians, firmly stood in support of the band. This was really the first time the San Francisco metal band was considered to be a group from an older generation. Prior to their suit against Napster, it was still possible to see the young thrash band at the heart of the group.
By 2000, the band was no longer the Budweiser guzzling behemoth of the late '80s and early '90s; they'd transformed into a group of "no-nonsense San Francisco-based metal statesmen," a description that makes them sound more like suits in a boardroom than guys in a room sweating it out.