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Metallica Is Back: They Never Were the Bad Guys

Metallica's already huge legacy is solidifying, and history is treating them quite well.

Page 2: The Napster Saga

This is an odd story. I read an article from a couple of years ago in which the writer claimed that Lou Reed and Metallica have both been “class-A assholes”. One of the links provided to support that point as it relates to Metallica and Napster linked to an article that hardly concluded that Metallica was a bunch of assholes. In fact, that writer, who noted that he worked in the copyright and licensing worlds, actually and explicitly acknowledged: “I completely understand Metallica’s position.” (Salon.com) But life isn’t always fair, even for those at the top.

If you will recall, in 2001, Metallica had been in the studio recording when it came to their attention that one of the unfinished songs that they were working on had been leaked to the public. In fact, not only was it leaked, but the track was being played on US radio. They the leak was traced to the Napster website where Metallica also saw the entirety of the rest of their catalog, along with the catalog of seemingly every other band on the planet. Music was being freely distributed to anyone, and to as many people, that wanted it.

Napster and its defenders claimed that their service was not meant to be used for illegal transactions but merely for file “sharing”. This was in part to help out struggling musical acts simply trying to get heard and noticed. Further, technically, the files were not actually stored on Napster’s site, the site just facilitated those transactions, and thus Napster claimed to effectively be innocent bystanders. Of course, as Napster was fully aware, 99 percent of the sharing through their site was of pirated songs by well-known artists. (Doan)

Metallica, along with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), successfully sued Napster, over 300,000 individual infringers, and several universities that saw heavy Napster traffic through school computers. (Many record labels also successfully sued Napster in a separate case.) The case settled with, among other things, Napster paying out millions for the previous unauthorized use of music and they were further enjoined from future such practices. (Billboard.com)

Napster and its supporters have also argued that the service was no different than tape-trading, a practice of music transferring on cassette tapes in the '70s and '80s. It was a sort of liberation of art and music -- away from the control of the corporate music labels. Metallica, themselves, in fact, had first gained valuable, free exposure through the same practice at the start of their career. But one of Metallica’s points, and what was integrated into the settlement, was the simple requirement that Napster block the sharing of music of any artists that did not want their music to be shared for free. (CNN.com) Thus upstart bands would still have precisely the same advantages of a young Metallica.

Metallica co-founder and drummer Lars Ulrich had been the band’s spokesperson on Napster and thus became a lightning rod for criticism. The combination of being on the attack, being very rich, working in tandem with Big Business (the RIAA), and effectively suing hundreds of thousands of individual Metallica fans (though non-paying ones) lead to an enormous backlash, from many. Ulrich later noted that while behind the scenes artists constantly thanked him and Metallica for their fight, yet only Dr. Dre had the guts to stand with them in public. (Parsbani) Though still largely beloved, and whether fair or not, the band’s image is still recovering from the whole affair.

Some of the very qualities that had made Metallica a premier heavy metal rock band had colored their approach in the matter, e.g., being spontaneous, direct, and confrontational. Ulrich himself explained in 2016:

That impulsivity occasionally bites us in the ass, because we jump before we know where we’re landing. 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.” [Laughs] And then all of a sudden, we were just like a deer caught in the headlights.

Especially, though, Ulrich said, “I underestimated what Napster meant to people in terms of the freedom it represented.” (Rollingstone.com)

Yet Metallica was hardly a bully. In a 2000 interview on The Charlie Rose Show, Ulrich accurately explained a mentality that was taking hold in the digital age, that is: “…anything that comes through my computer is mine…” (CharlieRose.com) This is especially so with those that have virtually never known any other way of listening to music and it has shaped the current business model for the music streaming services that dominate the industry today. As a writer for Flavorwire.com recently wrote, “…here we are 15 years later, living in the world that Napster built -- a world where your average artist needs 4,053,110 plays per month on Spotify to earn the minimum wage.” (Hawking) The new reality is that even hard-working, top flight bands scrimp to get by. Apart from the top one-percent of acts, many musicians may be more inclined than ever to bail out of music making altogether or to take second jobs. (Burrows; Leonard) Say goodbye to camping out in a studio or hunkering down in French bungalows for as long as is needed to create new music.

It still isn't popular for artists to speak up against the deep flaws of the new digital era. Thirteen years after Metallica took its' stance, however, mega-pop star Taylor Swift followed suit in speaking out in 2014. Yet even the premier pop star of her generation was concerned with being “looked at as someone who just whines and rants about this thing that no one else is really ranting about.” (Duboff) Still, Swift wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece: “Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently.” In the process, Swift wrote, these mediums have badly devalued “the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace.” (Linshi)

There have even been some acknowledgements and mea culpas from various artists, music writers, and former Ulrich critics. (e.g., see: Childers; Hawking; Parsbani) It may be an impossible conclusion to avoid. Whether you personally love Ulrich and Metallica or not, they were right on Napster.

To try to bring this point to some sort of close, yes, $20 for a new compact disc in the late '90s, the '00s, and today is a travesty. Somewhere in the future, perhaps a simple form of consumer accountability will become the norm. Pay for music -- and even if you are streaming it for a pittance, buy the digital or hard copy. If music is clearly overpriced, boycott it until it becomes affordable. Maybe twelve dollars for an album’s worth of material?

Some Kind of Therapy

As to the third and final alleged blemish to the Metallica legacy: Some Kind of Monster. The documentary started out intended as a straightforward behind-the-scenes recording of an album. Instead, long-running band tensions came to the fore and the filmmakers just let the cameras roll -- for a couple of years. Poor communication, ample egos, and some issues with alcohol abuse all looked to potentially break the group up for good. Hetfield goes to rehab. The record company hires and Metallica agrees to, a corporate coach -- a group therapist really, to facilitate some healing and better relations, and to keep the band together. The process is slow. And messy. But, lo and behold, it works. The band slowly learns to communicate and they resolve decades-old problems. Twelve years later, the band looks rock solid.

The film is not only insightful as to the inner workings of a rock band, but it provides stunning insights into dysfunction, function, and the therapeutic process. If you don’t value the benefits of therapy or have no pressing need for the same, you might not appreciate the film. However, keep in mind that Rottentomatoes.com gave the film an 89 percent fresh rating and 93 percent from the Top Critics. If anyone has out-and-out hostility toward this film, consider that you might be the one missing something, and not Metallica. Just saying.

In sum, after several decades, the Metallica legacy may be crystallizing. To try to put that legacy into a broader context, I am reminded of legendary Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips. Phillips, of course, was the midwife, or something like that, for the birth of rock 'n' roll. Phillips had a mantra for the work done at his studio (B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.): “perfectly imperfect.” Even before there was rock 'n' roll, Phillips regularly pushed artists to go past their boundaries, take risks, and most of all, be bold, heartfelt, and spontaneous. Phillips knew that mostly good came of it and that sometimes it lead to true greatness.

With that in mind, maybe we can all just appreciate the great rock 'n' roll band that Metallica is, appreciate their catalog, and appreciate their impact. They are guilty of being “perfectly imperfect,” and shouldn’t we all have such flaws.

Sources Cited:

Metallica, Dr. Dre Settle Napster Lawsuits” Billboard. July 12, 2001. Accessed December 02, 2016.

Burrows, Marc. “The Long, Hard Road to Rock‘n’roll Success: ‘We’re Essentially Skint’” The Observer. January 30, 2016. Accessed December 02, 2016.

Childers, Chad. “Dave Lombardo: Lars Ulrich Was Right to Fight Napster Read More: Dave Lombardo: Lars Ulrich Was Right to Fight Napster | Loudwire. 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.

Napster Settles Lawsuits with Metallica, Dr. Dre.” CNNMoney. July 12, 2001. Accessed December 02, 2016.

Doan, Amy. “Metallica Sues Napster” Forbes. April 14, 2000. Accessed December 02, 2016.

Duboff, Josh, Mario Testino, and Jessica Diehl. “Taylor Swift: Apple Crusader, #GirlSquad Captain, and the Most Influential 25-Year-Old in America” Vanity Fair. 2016. Accessed December 02, 2016.

Hawking, Tom. “Does Spotify Prove That Lars Ulrich Was Right All Along?” Flavorwire. August 06, 2013. Accessed December 04, 2016.

Leonard, Andrew. “The Music Industry Is Still Screwed: Why Spotify, Amazon and ITunes Can’t save Musical Artists.” Salon. June 20, 2014. Accessed December 02, 2016.

Linshi, Jack. “Here's Why Taylor Swift Pulled Her Music From Spotify.” Time. November 3, 2014. Accessed December 02, 2016.

Napster Debate - Charlie Rose” Charlie Rose. May 12, 2000. Accessed December 02, 2016.

Parsbani, Robert. “METALLICA’s Lars Ulrich Says Other Bands Were ‘Pussies’ When It Came Time To Fight Napster.” metalinjection.com. 04 Nov. 2016. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

Rivadavia, Eduardo. “How Metallica Overcame Adversity with ‘ … and justice for all.’” Ultimate Classic Rock. August 25, 2015.

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