Does Spotify Prove That Lars Ulrich Was Right All Along?

Remember Napster? If you’re old enough, the name probably conjures up memories of two things: a) furtively trying to download questionable MP3s at dial-up speeds and b) Lars Ulrich. The Metallica drummer is still living down the disastrous legacy of his legal battle with the file-sharing company, a battle that made him the most hated man in the music industry circa 2000 and a poster boy for the idea that old people just don’t understand the Internet. But with the backlash growing against the pittance that artists get paid by new post-Napster services like Spotify, it seems like a good time to ask: are we all living in the Lars Ulrich free-music dystopia? And was he maybe right all along?

Ulrich’s lawsuit against Napster has become notorious because of the oodles of bad publicity it generated. It’s a textbook example of a sort of financial equivalent to the Streisand effect — trying to sue the people sharing Metallica’s music probably cost the band more money than just letting those people share the files, especially as the backlash probably led to loads more people sharing that music out of a spirit of rebelliousness and/or spite.

And more to the point, of course, the whole thing was a PR disaster. It led to Metallica being depicted as grasping mega-rich capitalists who couldn’t countenance the idea of not getting every last cent to which they were entitled, even if it meant suing their fans. (This video, which also features in the glorious Some Kind of Monster documentary, is pretty illustrative of the nature of the backlash.) It’s a perception from which the band has never really recovered.

The effect on Metallica’s reputation wasn’t exactly helped by the exploits of their co-crusaders against Napster — the good ol’ RIAA, a body prone to not so much shooting itself in the foot as taking one of those Arnold Schwarzenegger six-barreled rotating machine guns and blowing both its legs right off. The decade of Pyrrhic litigation that followed the Napster debacle ended up serving as a pretty effective demonstration of how not to get public opinion on your side — don’t sue grandmothers and children, don’t claim poverty while paying your executives vast amounts of money to be useless… don’t be the RIAA, basically.

Conversely, the entire Ulrich shitfight was great publicity for Napster — they got to cast themselves as avatars of a new generation and new rules that old people just didn’t understand, the clued-in young vigilantes sticking it to the Man. Unlike Ulrich and the RIAA, they did a great job of getting the public on their side. Remember the MTV Video Music Awards from that year, for instance, where Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning came out in a Metallica T-shirt and was greeted like some sort of visiting dignitary? To cheers from the crowd, Fanning told his co-host that “a friend of mine shared [the T-shirt] with me… I’m thinking of getting my own.”

Drum roll, eh? Never mind that the comparison was disingenuous in the extreme — it’s not hard to get the public on side when you’re basically telling them it’s now magically OK to take something for free that they used to pay for. And here’s the thing: Metallica had a point. Some of what they said at the time was objectively wrong: “The trading of… music, videos, photos, or whatever, is, in effect, trafficking in stolen goods,” for instance, shows a lack of understanding between the difference between copyright violation and theft, or perhaps a willful disinclination to understand that difference.

But ethically, they were entirely correct: for all that people can make woolly philosophical justifications about information being free and such things, music doesn’t arise from a vacuum. It’s made by people, and those people need to eat. Taking those people’s work for free is objectively wrong, and that’s something that no amount of rhetoric about changing media landscapes and evolving cultural trends and the new Internet generation can ever really change. If artists want to give away their work for free, fine. If not, you damn well pay them for it.

There are plenty of arguments to be made that when Napster came along, the music industry should have seen the writing on the wall, should have seen that charging $20 or $25 for a CD was suddenly unsustainable, should have realized that file-sharing was the new home taping, should have realized that Napster could in theory drive sales rather than undermining them, should have adapted instead of litigated, should have changed its business model to adapt to the landscape of a new generation and a new millennium. All these things are probably true — as ever, the music industry has been its own worst enemy in this respect. (The Quietus ran a fantastic article a couple of years back about how illegal downloads have provided a convenient pretext for all manner of music industry sins.)

But nevertheless, here we are 15 years later, living in the world that Napster built — a world where your average artist needs 4,053,110 plays per month on Spotify to earn the minimum wage. For all the talk about how sharing files actually drove sales, you only have to look at the price people pay for recorded music today in comparison to what they paid in the mid-1990s to see that the advent of Napster devalued music dramatically and possibly irrevocably — a process whose effects means that the financial landscape for today’s musicians is substantially different from that of the previous generation.

There’s a counterargument to be made that recorded music was hugely overvalued in the first place, due to the record industry’s monopoly on production and distribution, and that Napster catalyzed some sort of long-overdue market correction. Again, this may be true, and it’s not like artists were seeing a great deal of the cash from records even back when CDs used to sell for $19.95 — but equally, it’s hard to argue that it’s anything but undervalued today. And this undervaluation is perpetuated in the latter-day offspring of Napster: legal music-streaming sites like Spotify, which pay artists basically nothing.

Think about how much a song costs to make, in terms of both time and money. There’s an old (and possibly apocryphal) story about how a lady once approached Pablo Picasso in the street and asked him to sketch her. He did so, and five minutes later tore the sketch off his pad and offered it to the woman, telling her, “That’ll be $10,000.” The woman was aghast, and said, “It only took you five minutes to draw it!” Picasso replied, “No, madam. It took me a lifetime.” Whether or not the story is true, it’s illustrative of a point about the production of art: it’s a long and laborious process. Can we really say that process is worth $0.00029 per stream?

The irony, of course, is that people like Lars Ulrich are just fine. They’ve already made their fortunes, and the money they get from Spotify, et al for their back catalogs is just icing on the cake. Ulrich himself seems to have made peace with his former tormentors, so much so that he apparently attended Napster co-founder (and current Spotify board member) Sean Parker’s crushingly expensive and hilariously overblown wedding, along with other good folk like Farmville Zynga’s Mark Pincus, Sting, and someone from Real Housewives of New Jersey. (Honestly, if being serenaded by Sting in a sort of faux-Lord of the Rings wonderland is your idea of a good time, I don’t know what to tell you.)

In the meantime, pretty much anyone who speaks out about today’s free music culture gets the Ulrich treatment. Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich copped a fair bit of it last week — take this exchange, for instance, where a Twitter warrior tells Godrich that “this reminds me of a ’90s interview with Lars Ulrich complaining about Napster from the decking of his multi £m LA mansion.” Similarly, Grizzly Bear got widely pilloried last year when they complained to Nitsuh Abebe that they couldn’t afford health insurance despite music being their full-time job.

But, y’know, shit, everyone else deserves a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, so why not musicians? People tend to argue that the horse has long since bolted, and that the music industry should just adapt or perish. Again, this is true, but as a society, we need to ask ourselves: is this what we want? Is this the value we place on art: none at all? Is it fair to expect musicians to work for basically nothing while people like Sean Parker get insanely rich? Are musicians nothing more than “content providers” for Parker and his ilk? And if so, is that any better than the “good old days” when musicians got screwed over by record companies?

There’s no doubt that the Internet has provided many great opportunities for musicians. It’s allowed them to distribute their own music independently, to circumvent traditional record industry channels, to reach their fans in unprecedented manners. But despite all the grand rhetoric from people like Fanning and Parker about the benefits of file-sharing and its mutant offspring like Spotify, the Reaganesque trickle-down benefits have largely failed to materialize. It’s perhaps telling that Parker said back in 2011 that “[w]hat I’m trying to do with Spotify is finish what I started with Napster.” Somewhere, Lars Ulrich is stifling a giggle.