Metallica vs. The Downloaders

There aren’t many bands in metal more loved – and loathed – than Metallica.

Check any metal site with a comment section, and you’ll find dudes lined up around the block to criticize anything everything Metallica says and does. 

Yeah, old-school fans can argue that the band slipped with “Load” and “Reload” in the 1990s, and I would agree. I didn’t purchase either of those discs, and I couldn’t generate much enthusiasm for the singles that made the radio (the best were “Fuel” and “The Unforgiven II,” while the low point was “Better Than You” IMHO). While I didn’t feel the band had betrayed its metal roots, the “Load/Reload” singles were definitely a letdown for a fan who had come of age with the band’s first four albums.

“St. Anger” generates a lot of wrath, particularly with the posters on Blabbermouth.net, … but I think the album gets an unfairly bad rap. While there certainly were issues with “St. Anger” (many of the songs were unnecessarily long and the production made drummer Lars Ulrich sound like he was playing a drumkit made of metal garbage cans), I appreciated the emotional rawness of the album. James Hetfield was coming to grips with decades of alcoholism, bassist Jason Newsted — who at one time had seemed the most dedicated member of Metallica — had quit after battling Hetfield over creative issues and the band was in danger of falling apart. “St. Anger” was tortured music for a tortured time. While “St. Anger” is hardly my favorite Metallica disc, I give them credit for baring their souls in such a gut-wrenching manner.

I understand the complaints of old-school fans who were bored with “Load/Reload,” and I can at least see the point of view from the crowd who found little to love about the sololess, overly-long “St. Anger,” but the real reason many “fans” hate Metallica can be summed up with a one concise word: Napster.

In July 2000, Ulrich testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about what he saw as Napster’s negative effect on the music industry in general.  The band became aware Napster was offering free downloads of its songs when rough cuts of “I Disappear” began appearing on rock radio. Ulrich’s contention that artists should have the ability to control how they release their music generated just a little bit of irritation among some fans.

“I am a true music fan,” One particularly outraged Blabbermouth poster wrote. ” … I have bought every Metallica album, except St. Anger (I downloaded it), some more than once … I’ve spent nearly $1000 on Metallica myself over the years.

“Enter Napster, I found a site that was fantastic. I was getting exposed to more new music than ever before. And I was contributing to the bands I discovered and really liked. Seeing shows, buying merch, spreading the word, and STILL buying the albums. I had amassed a collection of over 100,000 songs on my computer. People used to come to my house just to listen to music. This was about SHARING. Then Lars opened his big fat mouth. First came the cease and desist order from the RIAA. Then came the hackers who tried to wipe my computer clean on numerous occasions … Then came the ultimate, the federal government at my door to (seize) my computer.

“… It’s not like I was pushing kiddie porn or snuff films. I was sharing music. Rare bootlegs. Obscure rock. Classic (songs). Weird stuff. Unreleased (songs). Was I burning it and selling it? … NO!!! I never made a single cent profit off of it. I had money offered to me constantly for people to burn them discs, and I would refuse. I would tell them to guy buy it, and explain why. And no one ever had a problem with it.”

On the surface, his argument seems reasonable. But what the blabberposter fails to realize is this: If he was downloading 100,000 songs, it’s very likely a lot of other people were grabbing up thousands of free songs, too … and I don’t imagine all of those people felt the same duty to go out and buy songs they’d already ripped from the Web, free of charge. They probably didn’t have any qualms about transferring those songs to others, either.

So, are greedy Lars and the boys guilty of killing their fanbase by not allowing people to freely share their music? Is file sharing any different, really, from the tape trading helped generate such buzz for Metallica in the early years?

Yes, it is different, and the people who are still outraged by Metallica’s attack on Napster miss a rather vital point. Namely, that if they don’t like to work for free, they shouldn’t expect Metallica or any other band to give away their creative product for free, either.

The issue of free downloading was much bigger than Metallica — Ulrich said is his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee:

“Remember too, that my band, Metallica, is fortunate enough to make a great living from what it does. Most artists are barely earning a decent wage and need every source of revenue available to scrape by. Also keep in mind that the primary source of income for most songwriters is from the sale of records. Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community.”

 One of the most common comments bashers make about Metallica is that they’re greedy. A particularly clever blogger even started calling Lars “Lar$,” and the animators at Jib-Jab got some mileage out of the controversy with the (admittedly hilarious) “Money Good, Napster Bad” video. But here’s the question: Who gets to decide when Ulrich and the rest of Metallica is “rich enough”? Is there a point where they should simply give away all of their music for free?

If anyone should make that call, it should be Metallica themselves. They don’t need Napster (or fans who feel they’ve paid enough for Metallica music over the years), taking that choice away from them.

“But Metallica is already rich, so they don’t need the extra dough,” you might say. Well, maybe, but as Ulrich said, not every artist has been as lucky as Metallica. If it’s fine to download Metallica’s music for free, is it also OK to grab up Enslaved MP3s off the Web? Enslaved won’t sell a quarter of the records Metallica has sold over the years. Can I steal all the Agalloch songs I want, even though I know Agalloch will never reach gold or platinum record status? Is it a “Robin Hood” virtue when you steal from Metallica, but theft when you download tracks from Immortal or Grand Magus?

Here’s the simple fact the pro-Napster, anti-Metallica camp never seemed to grasp: No band owes you free music. If any artists chooses to give away music, as Nine Inch Nails recently did by offering free downloads of “The Slip” on its Web site, that’s great. And let’s be fair: Metallica has a large catalogue of complete concerts people can download, free of charge, from the band’s Web site.

The difference is, in both cases, Metallica and NIN’s Trent Reznor decided to release the music themselves. Napster didn’t give bands that choice.

Here’s the part I never understood: If you like a band, why would you steal their music? A lot of metal bands are scraping below the mainstream radar, living off record sales and maybe merch (good luck making money off touring this year in the U.S., with gasoline at $4 a gallon). I particularly love Type O Negative, but what kind of fan would I be if I downloaded “Dead Again” and “Bloody Kisses” for free? If anything, my download would only increase the possibility that Pete and the boys won’t release a new album a year from now. As a fan, isn’t that the last thing I want?

Is there greed in the music industry? Sure. Chain records stores and record labels have created tons of ill will over the years by mercilessly gouging customers (I mean, really: $19 for a new disc at FYE? Are they insane?) — but that’s easily avoided by buying albums from label Web sites or places like Amazon.com. As a rule, I try to buy as little in the record store as possible.

But in general, it’s pretty simple: If you like Metallica — or Opeth or High on Fire or Exodus or Dimmu Borgir or Iron Maiden or any other band — you shouldn’t be offended by the thought of shelling out a few bucks to buy their albums. If you don’t want to do that, I can’t hold a gun to your head … but I would say with “friends” like you, metal music doesn’t need any enemies.

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1 Comment

  1. Feel free to steal our music:

    http://www.politicsapocalypse.com

    It is available free to download. Licensed with the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Licence. This licence lets you use this music for commercial products or make remixes or other derivative works, so long as you give credit to the original artists. We are also doing a name your own price CD (starting at cost price).

    Cliffe.

    PS: Metallica are dinosaurs who are living in the past.


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