But file-sharing services also provided unprecedented word-of-mouth buzz for artists who had yet to find global success. Unlike Madonna or Metallica, modern-rock darlings Radiohead had yet to fully crossover to the mainstream when their fourth studio album, Kid A, leaked online a few weeks ahead of its October 2000 release. Lead single “Optimistic” was getting solid modern-rock radio play, but the critically acclaimed English rock band hadn’t released a U.S. top-10 track since 1992’s “Creep.” Kid A was radical diversion from Radiohead’s past work, a full-on embrace of the electronic textures they’d only flirted with in the past, but it was still expected to perform similar to the band’s most recent album, OK Computer, and top out around the mid-20s on the Billboard 200. Instead, Kid A debuted at No. 1, easily besting offerings from Mystikal, Nelly, and Green Day. Much of that success was credited to Napster, since there was very little promotion for the album aside from a few 30-second MTV spots, a couple of intimate concerts, and a Saturday Night Live appearance. Even the band’s label, Capitol/EMI, agreed. “We didn’t use Napster. We wanted to keep [Kid A] off Napster,” the label’s vice president of marketing, Rob Gordon, said in Spin’s January 2001 issue. “But when it went up, did it create more excitement, more enthusiasm? Absolutely.”

The following year would bring Radiohead their second Grammy, but also the end of Napster as we knew it. At the height of its popularity—anywhere from 26.4 million to 80 million users, depending on the source—Napster was shut down when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of several major record labels that had sued the service over copyright infringement. (Napster later settled the suits filed by Metallica and Dr. Dre.) “There was a weekend…that felt like the last days of Rome,” The Guardian’s Tom Lamont wrote in 2013 of the warning Napster users got before the service was shut down in March 2001. “There were 48 hours of free music left and I remember the panic… Would there ever be such an opportunity again?”

The short answer to Lamont’s question was “no,” but the courts’ crackdown didn’t immediately halt unauthorized free access to music and video files. Rather, it sent users scurrying to other P2P services like LimeWire and BitTorrent sites like the Pirate Bay, which would prosper for another decade yet.

Apple’s iTunes online store in 2014
Apple’s iTunes online store in 2014
Photo: Bryan Chan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The music industry also got smarter. Madonna—not to be foiled again—had seemingly leaked tracks off American Life posted on KaZaA ahead of the 2003 album’s release, but when users downloaded and played the files, all they heard was the singer saying “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Nevertheless, she was outsmarted: A few days after Madonna’s prank, a hacker took over madonna.com, posting a message that read “This is what the fuck I think I’m doing” along with links to MP3s of the actual American Life album.

The public had gotten a taste of instant digital consumption, and the industry had to adjust. In 2002, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs reached an agreement with the five major record labels to offer their content for purchase through iTunes—a natural progression for Apple, since they’d given everyone a way to carry those digital music files with them, in the form of the first iPod, in October 2001. Radiohead even returned to an online-first release, this time intentionally: In 2007, the band released In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want digital download (at that point they emailed you a .zip file) three months before making it available on CD and vinyl.

“This desire to use the technology was driven by distrust and frustration with trying to broadcast our music via traditional media, such as radio and television,” Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood wrote for Index On Censorship in 2010. “Music on television is scarce, and hard to do well. Radio has such regulated playlists that disc jockeys are lucky to have one free play per show. Why go exclusively through such straitened formats when you could broadcast directly to people who are interested in you, in that moment?” At the time, the move was seen as revolutionary, a way to short-circuit piracy and ensure artists were still being paid at a time when music sales were sharply declining. But what went largely unspoken was that the pay-what-you-want strategy could only be profitable for an act with a fanbase as large and fervent as Radiohead’s, which had expanded tremendously in the years since Kid A. The faltering industry wouldn’t truly stabilize until the development of subscription streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music—which could still be doing more to make sure the artists are being paid.

It’s no longer the Wild West days of Napster, but—for better or worse—that renegade service flipped the entire entertainment industry on its head and expedited its digital revolution. Compact disc sales continue to decline (down to 46.5 million CDs in 2019 compared to the industry high of almost 950 million in 2000), but now millions of tracks are available at our fingertips for just a small monthly fee or after a short ad on YouTube. If today’s teenager wants to listen to the latest Taylor Swift album the moment its released, they can. If they want to dive deep into Aboriginal tribal music, they can. The record-store doors are closed, but the gates are wide open for us to enjoy music like never before. Just maybe don’t go to a concert until this whole pandemic is over, please.