Although Metallica were the most outspoken about the dangers of file-sharing with the advent of Napster — garnering a lot of bad press for allegedly wanting to sue their fans — Kirk Hammett now says the group had no effect on the outcome of the crisis.
“We didn’t make a difference — we did not make a difference,” the guitarist recently said on the Let There Be Talk podcast (via Ultimate Classic Rock). “It happened, and we couldn’t stop it — because it was just bigger than any of us, this trend that happened that fucking sunk the fucking music industry. There was no way that we could stop it.… What had happened was, all of a sudden it was just more convenient to get music and it was less convenient to pay for it, and there you have it.”
Napster emerged as a peer-to-peer file-sharing network, with a focus on MP3s, in 1999. When the record industry caught on that people were sharing practically CD-quality copies of music that they would otherwise charge an MRSP of $18.99 for at record stores, they realized they had to stop the bleeding. The circulation of Metallica’s song “I Disappear,” featured on the Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack in mid-2000, caught the band’s attention, and they, along with Dr. Dre separately, decided to stand up to the network and filed legal action against it. The metal band filed a lawsuit in March 2000, naming several users who had traded the song, and eventually Napster settled Metallica’s and other suits against it. But in the meantime, Metallica became something of a villain, looking like greedy rock stars, despite the fact that they were attempting to defend artists’ streams of income.
“For me, it was kind of a leveling factor,” Hammett said. “All of a sudden, all of us were brought back to the minstrel age now where musicians’ only source of income is actually playing. And it’s like that nowadays — except that a lot of these bands aren’t really playing. They’re pressing ‘play’ or something. But there are a lot of bands who actually fucking play their instruments and have to play to still be a band and still fucking survive.”
In 2016, Lars Ulrich reflected on the Napster battle in an interview with Rolling Stone. “[Our] impulsivity occasionally bites us in the ass, because we jump before we know where we’re landing,” he said. “In a creative environment, that’s a great situation. But with Napster, we jumped straight down to ‘Fuck these guys! Let’s go after them.’ And then all of a sudden, we were just like a deer caught in the headlights. I underestimated what Napster meant to people in terms of the freedom it represented. So I think that sometimes even if you don’t want to, you gotta kinda just do a little bit of due diligence before you jump — at least have an idea of where you think you’re gonna land.”
He added that he was initially taken aback by the way the story turned into being about how Metallica were ostensibly targeting fans. “That was the brilliance of the other side,” he said. “It was between us and Napster, and then Napster made it between us and the fans, which was a really, really smart move. That was not the intention. Napster wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about commerce. It wasn’t about copyright. It was literally about choice. Whose choice is it to make your music available for free downloads? We were saying, ‘Hang on. It should be our choice.’ And then other people had different opinions and it became about whether you’re greedy or about money. And all of a sudden it was like, ‘Huh? What? Where the fuck did that come from? We’re not greedy! Wait a minute, who changed the direction of this whole argument?’ That was the part that kind of threw us.”