An oral history of music piracy
A couple of decades ago - well before a $10 monthly fee would unlock access to virtually every song ever recorded through streaming services - digital music piracy was rampant around the world. Whatever it was because you were young and couldn't afford to buy MP3s, or simply couldn't access them in your country, it was all too common to simply download music shared by other people on the web.

What was particularly interesting back then was the wide range of ingenious methods people used to share tunes. Back in the day, people went beyond simply hosting music on public-facing websites, and instead, found ways to send and receive tracks directly with other internet users. Let’s take a walk down memory lane and take a look at some of the ways people grew their music collections in the late 90s and early 2000s.

But first, a little bit about MP3s

In the 90s, digital music was most commonly available in the form of albums on CDs, which stored about 700MB worth of uncompressed audio tracks - good for a full-length album. But with internet bandwidth and speeds being what they were back then, it didn’t make sense to copy those music files and send them to friends over the internet. A single four-minute song would weigh in at about 42MB in WAV format, and would take roughly three and a half hours to download.

Lucky for music fiends, the MP3 compression format came along in 1993 and made things a lot easier. It allowed for reasonable audio fidelity with comparatively small file sizes, making it easier to rip music from CDs, store them on hard drives (remember, this was back when the average household didn’t have a more than a couple hundred GBs of storage space at best), and distribute them online. That four-minute song I told you about? You could shrink it down to 3.84MB, at an acceptable bit rate of 128kbps.

And with that, we were off to the races.

The rise of Napster - and the fall of the music industry

While a small number of web users had already begun sharing music online through channels like the Internet Underground Music Archive, digital piracy really took off with the launch of Napster, a free file-sharing network that connected people around the world directly to one another. 

It was developed by 18-year-old Shawn Fanning while he was a student at Northeastern University, over a 60-hour coding marathon that he put himself through. In 2000, Napster was believed to have experienced the fastest growth of any digital service in history, having amassed some 80 million users at its peak during its short life span of about two years. 
The app was shut down in 2001 after many a legal battle with artists, companies, and music industry bodies in the US - including Metallica, Dr. Dre, and the Recording Industry Association of America - for its role in countless copyright violations.

But while it was around, you could simply fire up Napster, search for a song, album, or artist, and see a list of files hosted by people who were online at that time and had what you were looking for. When you clicked ‘download,’ you’d essentially initiate a direct peer-to-peer file transfer between your computers, and have those tracks on your hard drive in minutes. It was genius. Undeniably illegal genius, but genius nonetheless.

I remember checking out Napster briefly, but it closed down before I got much use out of it, and frequented a few others instead, like…



  • not quite as easy - couldn’t find the servers or channels I used to frequent.
  • I had to look up directories of IRC channels
  • all I came up with was this 420-themed server, popped into a channel that was advertising a radio station
  • it was playing 

  • It was interesting to see how this seems to have mostly died out. There’s still anime, books, and movies - but even those seem a lot rarer than before. Torrents are likely where it’s at for the most part.

  • Interesting how we give up on these and seem to never look back. And the software, the protocols can just fade away.

^ Use this image - source =


Napster knocked the music industry on its ass when it launched in 1999, taking revenues down bigtime. Though music industry revenues are still below the peak levels of 1999, the past two years have been the first years of material growth since the peak with an increase in industry revenues of 16.5% in 2017. -