Dial-up the music, please

For the oldest of the millennials or the younger lot of the Gen-Xers, the Nineties were special...

Do you remember Napster?

Twenty years back feels like another lifetime. 1999. No social media, no ridesharing or dating apps, no smartphones, no 4G. But 1999 was the year we saw something that would give birth to today’s peer-to-peer sharing platforms. Something that would give us an idea of what online sharing would come to mean a good two decades later.

The Nineties were heady times. For the oldest of the millennials or the younger lot of the Gen-Xers, the Nineties were special. Consider this. We were the generation whose introduction to music, be it rock, the blues, pop or country was largely through borrowed cassettes from older cousins and uncles or the radio. And suddenly, there was the Internet. And a world of possibilities.

Yes, the dial-up was painfully slow. Yes, the tapes and CDs were still there but suddenly we had discovered a peer-to-peer music sharing platform. Napster. The floodgates had opened. I still remember how downloading songs was the highlight of any given day in those years. We would click on strange user names and “let the song download,” before running a quick errand. Like clothes left out to dry on a line. Suddenly, we knew and listened to songs we never realised existed. Our days were an endless loop of discovery. Serendipity. With curated lists and recommendations, serendipity is a rare experience.

Amidst all the buzz, we knew nothing about the ethical or legal implications of using Napster. Our biggest concern was an incoming call on the landline. You’d get disconnected. And you’d have to dial-up all over again.

But enough about download speeds. The year 1999. In the world of tech and music, it was a truly landmark year. Napster sowed the first seeds of social networking at a time when we didn’t know what it even meant. Of course, we downloaded songs in the constant fear of our computers getting corrupted by random viruses. But we risked it because, hey, every day we were discovering new music! However, the madness was short-lived. The music industry in the US hit the panic button. Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, the two youngsters who launched the platform in the summer of 1999, were in trouble. From gracing the cover of Time magazine, Fanning was facing legal battles.

Napster gave way to huge copyright concerns, and rubbed big bands the wrong way. Metallica, for instance. Their demo song had gone online, and people were downloading the song before it was released. The lawsuit that hit Napster was filed by Metallica first, and then Dr Dre, the rapper. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) also filed a lawsuit on the illegal distribution of copyrighted content. Eventually, Napster lost the battle and shut shop. Fanning and Parker would go their separate ways and Parker became Facebook’s first president. Parker would also eventually become an early investor in Spotify, the paid music streaming service provider.

Napster tried to launch a subscription service before being bought by Rhapsody, a streaming service. But in the ashes of the Napster blaze, a spark was lit. Music-lovers the world over had gotten a taste of downloading music, the mp3 way, and there would be no looking back. One man, Steve Jobs, saw a huge opportunity in this new way of listening to music, and went on to launch iTunes in 2001.

For the millennials and Gen-Xers, the year 1999 will always remain special, because they have seen the world before the Internet and the world after.

The world changed in front of their eyes, and they had the best seats to the tech transition. It was also the first time they had access to so much downloaded music on their computers, and everything would change from here on.

In less than a decade, they would be making friends on Facebook, and using smartphones. They would outrage on Twitter. In two decades, they would use photo-sharing apps to broadcast every moment of their daily lives. They would ask Alexa to play their favourite 90s number. They would listen to music on audio streaming platforms.

Talking of change, the documentary, Downloaded, directed by Alex Winter, is a good exploration of the Napster years, and how it has transformed the way we now consume content. If you are a millennial or a Gen-Xer, the sound of dial-up in the documentary’s opening scene will ring quite a few bells. It’s another matter that you would never trade today’s high-speed broadband for the dial-up. That better stay put in the Nineties.

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