A User Guide To Napster (Before It Became Legal)

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Napster. An invidious presence which contributed to the decline of the music industry and facilitated mass piracy and the collapse of album sales, not to mention being responsible for our having to see Justin Timberlake onscreen in the film “Social Network”. All guilty as charged.

But this enabler of free file-sharing also allowed great numbers of music fans access to rare and unreleased tracks. It gave access to music for the masses, and led to the current success of legitimate downloading and streaming services.

Those streaming services are now user-friendly, fast and efficient, something that Napster blazed a trail for.

Or did it?

Whilst searching through some old papers recently I found the following user guide to Napster that I thought I would share with you. I drew it up in 2000 to help a friend use Napster, so it is literally an Idiot’s Guide…*

The Every Record Tells A Story Napster Instruction Manual. (Written in 2000).

1. Connect to the internet. This is achieved via a lead from your computer that plugs in to your telephone line. Note that whilst you are online, no-one can telephone you, so if you need to call mum, best to do it now. To overcome this issue, mobile phones are soon going to become popular. And smaller.

2. Don’t worry if it all seems a bit slow. That’s normal. It’s a dial up connection.

(2014 explanatory note for teenagers:  a “dial up connection” is a difficult concept to explain to a teenager. I’ll try).

A “Dial up connection” is what we had before Broadband. Only it was slower. Much slower. No, even slower than that. Imagine you have no phone signal. Like when you’re backpacking in the Peruvian jungle or somewhere remote like Berkshire, and you’re trying to look up someone’s update on Facebook, and it isn’t loading properly and takes about fifteen minutes to do so. But you’re actually at home. *That’s* like a dial up connection…

3. Download the Napster program. It’s a piece of software that allows you to look at what strangers have on the hard drive of their computer and also allows strangers to see what’s on your hard drive. Don’t worry though. It’s completely trustworthy and safe. Oh yes. Well, probably. Okay, maybe.

4. Search for a music track by typing its name in the box provided.

5. Look at the search results. The one hundred possible results will break down as follows:

  • 23%: A track with the same name as your searched-for track, but which is a completely different track, probably by someone you dislike intensely.
  • 20%: Files that look like they are probably unpleasant pornography.
  • 32%: Computer viruses disguised to resemble the exact same track you are looking for.
  • 22%: Files with the correct track and band name but which are entirely silent.
  • 3%: The actual correct mp3 of the band and track you are seeking.

NB. Most of the tracks are identically marked, so you have to either a) accept there’s no way of telling and cross your fingers or b) develop a sixth sense to identify the correct ones. Note also if you are downloading an album one track will, entirely at random, be inexplicably encoded at a lower bit-rate to the others, meaning it will be quieter.

6. Once you have selected the right track, click on “download” and watch agonisingly for half an hour whilst the track slowly downloads, your only clue as to whether it is working being a bar inching across the screen moving like treacle towards “100%” whilst you hope that whoever is sharing the track doesn’t decide to switch off their connection before the track has downloaded.

NB This can be pretty stressful. Half the time the file sharer may seem to deliberately shut down their connection just as the download (that has already taken fifteen minutes) reaches the “98% complete” mark. At which point the whole thing is lost and you have to start again.

7. After fifteen minutes, stare at screen irritably, wondering why nothing appears to be downloading. Realise why when the phone rings – revealing you have lost your dial-up connection. Also realise all those tracks you lined up will no longer download just as you speak to your mum who had you on ring-back and who is wondering why you’ve been on the phone for two hours.

8. Read the notice on-screen from a record company that is threatening you with a cease and desist notice thanks to your downloading a Rage Against The Machine / Metallica track. Note that it has somehow immobilised the Napster programme so you are unable to use it any longer.

9. Look up the work-around on Google to disable the “lock” on your Napster account so you can continue to download obscure Metallica B-sides and classic albums by John Coltrane that you read were good in one of those “greatest albums” lists but which you’d never have paid actual money for in a million years. And probably won’t listen to.

10. After two stressful days, and upon successful completion of steps 1-9 listen to successfully downloaded track. Then repeat steps for track two, three, four…all the way up to ten on the album.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy. That’s one album done.

When you put it like that, how on earth did illegal downloading catch on?

* And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything…

Napster is now a legal subscription service





3 responses to “A User Guide To Napster (Before It Became Legal)”

  1. rossmurray1 Avatar

    Ah, great trip down memory lane. I still have a CD copy of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” courtesy of Napster. I’m reminded that it was downloaded as separate tracks every time “Ashes of American Flag” fails to segue properly into “Heavy Metal Drummer.”
    I’m currently writing something set in 1998 and the Internet comes into play. It’s tough to recall just how primitive it was/wasn’t at that time.


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      Thanks for that Ross – good to know others had similar experiences.


  2. Tim Malcolm Avatar

    I remember watching the status bars like a hawk. I feel like colors corresponded with the number of users who had the song (red being few, yellow being some, etc.). Either way, that status bar would just inch along from percentage to percentage. The anticipation was beautiful – it made me want to hear that lost Beach Boys track even if it was just a throwaway demo version of “Heroes and Villains” that made it onto thousands other bootlegs.


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