Napster: Music Sales Haven't Been the Same Since

Napster founder Shawn Fanning in 2000 Photograph by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

1999 Shawn Fanning, 19, launches a file-sharing service for music.

Napster wasn’t the first peer-to-peer computing system, but it was the first one people used in large numbers. Even aside from the promise of free music, the idea seemed radical to Ali Aydar, one of the company’s first employees. “Back then there was a distrust of the Internet in general,” he says. “The idea that you’d allow another person who you don’t know to connect to your computer and add things or take things from your hard drive was totally novel.”

Like most startups, Napster endured its share of technical challenges. The system was actually a series of smaller networks, where people only had access to songs on the drives of those in their corner of Napster. The company struggled to connect everyone to a larger, central network.

Aydar says Napster planned to expand beyond music, but it never had the chance. The Recording Industry Association of America sued the company in December 1999 for copyright infringement. “We couldn’t make any changes to anything once the lawsuit was filed,” Aydar says. A judge ordered the company to shut down in 2001. While successive attempts to relaunch the service never gained traction, Napster’s proposition—that music wants to be free—became the basis of music streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora and maimed traditional music sales forevermore.

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