They say hindsight is 20/20, and with hindsight, I have a very different opinion of Lars Ulrich's attack on Napster than I did when the news was first surfacing. It was a different time. I was a teenager, and had access to all this great music, and somebody was trying to take that away from me. When Lars Ulrich showed up at the steps of Napster's offices, with subpoenas to block people who downloaded Metallica's music on the service, I took it as personal attack, but really it was not.
Over time, I've come to realize, that Metallica was not going after its fans. Metallica were going after a startup organization that was taking millions of dollars of funding to create a product on the backs of copyright holders, without compensating those artists. In the excellent 2013 documentary about Napster, Downloaded, co-founder Sean Parker says that this was all just a small project that started in a dorm, and the reason nobody in the music industry was reached to work out a deal was simply because they did not know anybody in the music industry. They were just kids, in over their heads.
I feel like Napster lives on in Spotify, which is legal, and is paying out musicians and proudly streams Metallica. But, by Metallica coming out in front of this thing, they were painted, perhaps unfairly, as the villains. In a new interview with Mojo, Lars Ulrich reflected on the battle and noted how many musicians agreed but didn't want to go public because of fear of public perception:
"I'm proud of the fact that we stood up for what we believed in at the time. Could we have been better prepared for the shitstorm that followed? Absolutely! We were ignorant as to what we were getting involved in. But that's always been the case."
He continued: "In the beginning, Napster was a street fight. It's that simple. We perceived somebody to be fucking with us so, fuck it, you fire back. And then all of a sudden this whole other thing happened and we were in the middle of it, alone. Every day that summer, there was not a musician or peer or somebody inside the music business who wouldn't pat me on the back and go, 'You guys are standing up for the rest of us.' But the minute we were out in public, we were on our own. Everybody was too shit fucking scared and too much of a pussy to take a step forward. The only other person that said something in public was Dr. Dre."
Lars reiterated that the battle was never about the money, it was about the lack of control the band had with their own material, which echoes statements he told to congress during the Napster suit:
"The only annoying thing that still resonates 16 years later is that the other side were really smart: they made it about money. But it was never about money. Never. It was about control. Yet still to this day there's this perception — small but it still lingers — that Metallica are greedy [and] money-hungry, and that's not who we are or ever were. We were the band who [in 1991] invited bootleggers to come to our shows and tape them. We sold 'taper' tickets and we'd have a section where you could bring in a recorder and tape the show and trade them with your friends. And all of a sudden we're greedy… [sighs] All those years later, that's part of my reputation."
Ironically, last year when Taylor Swift made essentially the same argument but about Apple Music not paying royalties, people universally agreed with her and Apple changed their policy.
It's interesting to look back and see that while Metallica could've handled things better, they were pretty much in the right.
We analyzed the case, as it was one of the most controversial moments in metal: