"We'll never stop, we'll never quit/'Cause you're Metallica!"
That's the war cry of fan camaraderie Metallica's James Hetfield conjures up
when the band performs their anthem "Whiplash." In 18 years Metallica
has risen from an obscure underground band to one of rock's most
perennially successful groups.
Today, "indie" doesn't mean much of anything; back then, it did. In the early
1980s, before Metallica even recorded their debut album, the band had
established a worldwide following via an underground tape-trading network.
In modern parlance, we would call it illegal and unrestricted copying and
distribution of their songs; the recent announcement of Metallica's lawsuit
and various colleges on the grounds of copyright infringement by users of
Napster's software struck me as stunningly ironic in light of the band's
Come with me back to the Stone Age times of the early '80s, a time when
VCRs were the size of small cars and we learned about computers in movies
like "WarGames" and "Tron." There was a thriving heavy-metal underground
at this time. Mainstream metal was dominated by hair bands like Mvtley
Cr|e, Bon Jovi and Poison. As with other underground scenes, this
underground was born out of hatred for the mainstream of the day. The
unwashed image of Motvrhead was the aesthetic of this scene, not the
spandex and hairspray of Mvtley Cr|e.
A big part of this scene was tape trading. Tape traders networked via the
pen-pals section in English hard-rock magazines like Kerrang! and the
now-defunct Sounds. There were few independent record labels at that time
catering to the metal crowd; we traded demos and live tapes by dozens of
bands who didn't have a record out. The metal underground was just as
legitimate as any punk scene, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some
of the bands eventually had limited success; a few are still stumbling along
(shout-outs go to Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer), but most of these bands
never put out more than an album or a single, and the majority are now long
forgotten (special shout-outs go to Jaguar, Blitzkrieg, Control and Anvil
Back in the Stone Age, tape trades took weeks to complete as letters and
packages were sent and received. Communication at that time was done by
means of a now-ancient art that required the participant to be familiar with
the technology of envelopes and postage. Bands would get famous without
even having played a show or releasing a record, but simply on the strength
of their tape getting distributed to tape traders around the world.
In 1982, an upstart band called Metallica provided a few tape-trading friends
with a demo tape of seven songs, called "No Life 'Til Leather." Dubbed and
re-dubbed and re-re-dubbed, the tape made its way from California to
Chicago, to New York, to England, to Holland, to Germany. Within months,
the band had fans worldwide -- without the benefit of a publicist, an A&R
person or a marketing budget. It's anybody's guess how many people were
actually involved in this tape-trading network, but a good number of these
charter Metallica fans were budding rock journalists who wrote for the
various underground metal zines and magazines of the time (added shout-outs go to Metal Mania, Whiplash, Aardschok, and Metal Forces); their
enthusiasm for this unknown California band was very soon transmitted to
thousands of their readers.
The rest, as they say, is history. "Kill 'Em All" was a sensation; "Master of
Puppets" ended up in the Top 40 album chart; a few years later, "Metallica"
would sell 12 million copies.
Despite its huge success, Metallica has tended to respect its roots. The band
members realized the valuable role concert bootlegs played in building their
loyal and enduring fan base. As recently as 1996, the band allowed fans to
tape concerts from special taping sections ` la the Grateful Dead's. In a 1997
Musician cover story on the commercial bootleg industry, band co-manager
Peter Mensch said that by allowing fans to tape their shows, Metallica
effectively killed the demand for commercial bootlegs; fans were allowed
access for free what they would otherwise buy.
Of course, concert bootlegs are different from pirated versions of songs lifted
directly from officially released albums and singles. Pirated versions of
officially released material cuts directly into money, and it's not called the
"music business" for nothing.
Fast forward to April 13, 2000, and the announcement
that Metallica and their representatives had filed a lawsuit against the
software company Napster and the University of Southern California, Yale
and Indiana University.
Napster is a program that lets people swap music files (relatively) quickly and
easily. The company says, in effect, that its software helps new bands
distribute their music and that it's not the company's fault that users are
abusing the technology to distribute copyrighted songs. Metallica argues that
the program steals their intellectual property. They also contend that the
universities are a partner in this because college students using the schools'
networks seem to be the biggest users of Napster's software. And now the
band has begun tracking down individual users who are allowing Metallica
songs be downloaded by others.
Personally, I'm torn. The Internet allows such rapid dissemination of
information that it potentially can be an incredible way to distribute music.
When I think back about how it used to take weeks to receive a cassette of
new songs by a band through the mail, it's astounding that the same task
now takes only minutes or even seconds.
On the other hand, since I happen to work as the copyright and licensing
person for a major book publisher, I completely understand Metallica's
position. The songs do belong to them. They worked hard to create
them and registered them for copyright protection.
But Napster isn't doing the actual pirating of the songs; it's the users who
are the culprits. Can the company and universities really be held
accountable? Should Xerox machines be held accountable for the magazine
articles and book chapters illegally copied on them? Should Kinko's? I dunno.
In the end, success is a double-edged sword. Twenty years ago, we
swapped music. Today, the same thing is referred to with words like
"commodity" and "goods" -- both part of the wording in Metallica's press
release concerning the lawsuit. After 50 million-plus albums, the band's music
is a commodity now.
The tape-trading days of the early '80s were very innocent. It was all for the
love of the commodity -- er, music. To their credit, Metallica are one of the
few to claw their way out of that metal underground scene; it's also to their
credit that they're still going strong. Still, the fact that they're attempting to
crush something that would allow a young upstart band the same kind of
underground exposure once afforded them is ironic.
Beyond the legal issues, I think the Internet has also taken some of the
mystery and excitement out of discovering new music. Yes, it's definitely
making it more convenient, but with convenience can come apathy. There's
something compelling about taking the time and making the effort to dub a
cassette. (Adjust those levels! Do you want Dolby with that?) You put it into
an envelope, throw it into the nearest mailbox and have it delivered to a
far-off destination. Once there, another music lover opens the package, pops
it into a tape deck and the magic of sharing happens. Yes, the Internet is
about sharing information, but downloading a file onto your hard drive and
opening the file in Real Audio just isn't as exciting to me.
Press eject and give me the tape.