Napster Would Be 15 – a Timeline of Digital Disruption

Sean Fanning, left, and Sean Parker in a still from "Downloaded"

With the advent of June yesterday, Napster would have turned 15 years young -- had it not gone through as many transformations and transitions as Miley Cyrus has over the past decade-and-a-half.

The "service" was launched in June of 1999, little more than a Wild West of music sharing for those patient enough to download MP3s at pre-broadband transmission rates (i.e. 10 minutes minimum for a single song). After two years at the bleeding edge of the law, the company was ripped apart by industry lawyers, beginning with Metallica's suit in early 2000, culminating in Judge Marilyn Patel's fatal ultimatum in 2001. eventually selling its assets to Roxio in 2003. Following that, the company amalgamated tech purchased from Sony and Universal (for $40 million) to create 'Napster 2.0,' a download store and subscription service meant to compete with the iTunes Store.

From there, Napster's already fragmented story began to tatter and fray, eventually unraveling completely with the service's absorption by Rhapsody in 2011.

The service was, as we survey a landscape of Beats and Spotify and Rdio and Deezer, prescient in its goals of music for everyone, anytime and anywhere. But, especially in an entrenched and reticent industry, those first out of the gate don't always take the gold.

Below, a selective timeline of Napster's increasingly rocky road through the prism of Billboard's evolving coverage. We begin in 2004...

2004

Napster Investors Face The Music
Napster has been reborn as a legal online music service, but the ghost of its former renegade song-swap self is trailing about $17 billion of legal baggage. On April 27, music labels and publishers will face off against Bertelsmann AG in federal court in San Francisco over claims that the German media company's 2000 investment in Napster kept the file-swapping service operating eight months longer than it would have done otherwise.

U.S. Military Enlists Napster
Napster has inked an agreement with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service that gives all branches of the United States military access to the digital-music service.

2005

Napster Eyes German Service
Based in Frankfurt, the online music service's offering will be tailored to local tastes. It will aggregate a "substantial" amount of local German content alongside international titles, and its marketing campaign will be driven by strategic multi-media partnerships.

Norway Court Upholds Napster Conviction
The country's highest court upheld a lower court ruling that ordered the student to pay $15,900 in compensation. The published version of the court ruling withheld the student's name.

Beggars, Napster Strike License Deal
Napster pushed the button on its British download service on May 20, 2004, almost a month prior to market-leading rival Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store.

Napster U.K. Membership Swells To 750K
The UK business of online music service Napster has disclosed that it has sold more than 55 million downloaded and streamed full-length tracks since its launch 15 months ago.

2006

Napster Launches Cell Phone Service
Napster has launched its new cell phone music service, Napster Mobile, with its initial distribution partner, southeastern regional carrier SunCom Wireless. It is the first mobile music download service offered by a third-party brand and not directly from a wireless carrier.

Napster Explores Sale Of Company
The Los Angeles-based digital music subscription and download retailer, which has a market capitalization of $183 million, has hired investment banking firm UBS to explore its "strategic alternatives." No timetable has been set for when the company might do a deal. Napster warned that the review process may not result in a transaction.

2009

That Deal With Napster? It Never Was Going to Happen
Missing in the "Should have made a deal with Napster" arguments is any semblance of the shape and structure of such a partnership. Just what would that partnership look like? The answer is there is no answer. Not doing a deal with Napster was not a mistake because it never could have happened.

A decade after Napster, nobody has figured out an access model that mainstream consumers will adopt. SpiralFrog went under. Qtrax and iMesh are hollow imitations of traditional P2P that shackle tracks with DRM and lack P2P app's ease of use. Advertising-based models, one of the assumed methods of monetizing the original Napster, will need a few more years of tinkering before they allow for a sustainable business that compensates content owners.

2011

Ten Years Later, Napster Loses In Court Again
As Napster was making its transition from industry transgressor to industry comrade, it started making deals with record labels for access to songs it could provide on its service. One of those deals was made with Rounder Records Corp., one of the larger indies whose roster includes Alison Krauss, Cowboy Junkies, Loudon Wainwright III, and Philip Glass. Napster inked a deal with Rounder in 2001 and then another agreement in 2006.

Related

Napster Co-Founder Sean Parker Now Believes In Record Industry
Why does Parker see light at the end of the tunnel? He believes there is potential behind the change in how recorded music is experienced and monetized. When monetization shifts from acquisition (downloading) to experience (streaming), consumer spending will also shift, according to Parker's thinking. And when rights owners are paid according to listening, not purchasing, revenue shifts from newer to older music.

Rhapsody to Acquire Napster From Best Buy
Under the terms of the agreement, Rhapsody will get Napster's subscribers and "certain other assets," according to the press release. In return, Best Buy, which acquired Napster in September 2008, will get an unspecified minority stake in Rhapsody. Rhapsody's press release says the transaction is expected to close on or around November 30, 2011.

Napster Laid To Rest...Inside Rhapsody
Digital music's most disruptive brand, Napster, closed down yesterday, swallowed up by nine-year-old music subscription service Rhapsody. It marks a symbolic end to the notorious file-sharing brand, which tried but failed to turn into a legitimate music subscription service.

2013

Q&A: Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning on 'Downloaded,' The Napster Revolution
They were wiry teenagers when they ignited the digital revolution, altering the music landscape forever with a little program called Napster in 1999. Now, 14 years later, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker are older and wiser, but no less passionate about their original mission to give people access to the music they want, when they want it.