Whatever you choose to call it, the decade from 2000-2009 was very much the pinnacle of the age of music downloading. The single, as a concept, was already all but dead by the time downloads came onto the scene, and it was completely revitalised by the likes of iTunes, Amazon, and 7digital.
But long before any of them appeared on the market – long, even, before the single had really entered its final death throes, something called Napster came onto the scene.
It was inevitable, in many ways – as soon as bandwidth grew fast enough, and hard disc space became cheap enough, it should really have been obvious that consumers would start ditching the cassettes, and would start sharing digital music instead.
The roots of the download go back a decade or so, with the invention of the world wide web and the mp3 standard both occurring in the early 1990s. By the late 1990s, mp3.com was one of the most popular music websites, allowing amateur musicians to share their recordings with their new-found fans.
Seen in this light, the music industry were remarkably short-sighted during this period. How can they not have seen that downloading was about to become the most important form of music purchase? Why were they not investing millions in developing early systems like iTunes?
In many ways, this was actually a case of disruptive technology. When Napster first appeared in 1999, it developed because people wanted to share music with one another. If the music industry had had enough foresight, they could easily have cut it off before it went anywhere, but they let it grow, gave it publicity by suing the people who made it, and yet again took a large part in their own demise.
Illegal file sharing is something of a hydra, and Napster could very easily have killed the music business completely, had it not been for the likes of Apple, stepping in from outside. Apple, remember, are supposed to have made some kind of murky gentleman’s agreement in the 1980s with Apple Records, to ensure they would never “do” music. But iTunes appeared just two years after Napster, and swiftly stepped into a space that was very much needed – a legal platform for downloading music.
It took these two total outsiders – a group of late night coding geeks, and a computer firm, to step in and shake up the music industry beyond all recognition. It probably could have saved itself by keeping the lawyers at bay, but it chose its path.