Remembering P2P

It never really felt wrong. You searched, you clicked, you listened.

The birth of large P2P networks in the late 90s / early 00s was one of the first serious, far-reaching examples of the network effect on the internet. It gave access to on-demand music to millions for the first time.

It was the inherent novelty of choice that helped the idea spread, not just the free price tag. No more requests on the radio, or hanging on for MTV, The Box, or one of the more obscure music TV channels to play that song you can’t get out of your head.

You could choose any song you wanted. That was the real revolution.

This idea has been born out by the music industry’s eventual capitulation in support of services like Spotify, Youtube Music and Apple Music. People will pay, as long as they get unlimited choice, whenever they want.

“What was missing was background music.”

P2P came at the right time. There were thousands – millions – of teenagers like me whose spare time was increasingly spent online. We weren’t totally normal, but we weren’t odd either.

The relatively new phenomenon of sitting at a PC all evening lent itself to P2P sharing’s growth too. You had your IM software open talking to friends (mostly MSN messenger here in the UK), you had your browser open choosing which FlamingText logo you wanted for that new site you were putting together. What was missing was background music.

The songs you and your friends had access to grew exponentially. The influx of American rap and R&B, coupled with homegrown Garage and DnB was hard to keep up with. Hence the network effect grew by the imperative of finding songs before your friends.

The Contenders

After the fall of Napster, KaZaA (or Kazaa, as it was later written) was the hot place to get your songs. Built on the custom FastTrack protocol, it was indeed fast and was full of any mainstream track or film you could want.

With distinct branding and active development, it embodied the young internet community of the time. It was, to my mind, the first example of Web 2.0 “meaningless name” branding too, even though I’d personally put KaZaA and the other P2P applications firmly in the Web 1.0 camp – well, maybe 1.5.

The incredible success of KaZaA was shown when normal people were using it, not just those of us glued to the screen. Often installed by techie friends (friends of their children, normally) it didn’t take long for families to casually accept music was now free and abundant.

KaZaA inspired rivals, the most popular options being Shareaza, Bearshare, and Morpheus. These multi-protocol clients were mostly based on the Gnutella network, though Morpheus originated on the FastTrack network from KaZaA’s developers.

As for the general populace, KaZaA stayed popular until it started to become overly commercialised. Pro versions available, it didn’t fit with the easy access, no cost ethos that seemed inherent in the P2P world.

So in came Limewire, the single most successful P2P client when judged by the installation base among “normals”. Java-based, Limewire gave fast, accurate results and spread like wildfire. Those friends of sons and daughters replaced the virus-ridden KaZaA network with the Gnutella-based Limewire.

While all that was going on, the more purist music fan was enjoying using clients like SoulSeek, and eDonkey/eMule. Boasting availability of niche genres and higher-quality recordings, these networks emphasised the sharing aspect far more than the more mainstream clients. What you had to share to others dictated your success in downloading from the network.

Some also-rans were popular among their users, but didn’t become as big as Limewire or KaZaA. Ares and WinMX to name but two, were fantastic networks with high-speeds and their ease-of-use was unrivaled.

“Once-secret rap battles not recorded with the intention of release. No spin, no gloss – raw music.”

Whilst Spotify and other streaming services today give the convenience and broad access to millions of tracks reminiscent of the P2P sharing days, the spirit is very different.

Designed with corporate, money-making intentions in mind, today’s music networks don’t capture the ethos of innovation driven by community needs of the early days. The focus was on features, on reliability – there was something to achieve. You could find music not commercially released, once-secret rap battles not recorded with the intention of release. No spin, no gloss – raw music.

It was a world to explore, not a place to be spoon-fed the label’s latest cash cow. It was community-driven with a feeling of innovation, and of course at the end of it you had a non-DRM MP3 file to do with what you wish.

The time you waited for a track to download gave it an importance and dignity that I feel is somewhat damaged by the instant streaming world. It’s never been easier to skip. You downloaded, listened to the whole thing, and then judged. Now we can skip, skip, skip.

The original networks were, by definition, participatory. Everyone could add to them. Now, even with huge libraries, we still have curation inherent in every commercial service available.

It’s also reasonable to suggest the time it took to download files on a P2P network contributed to the rise of individual tracks over entire albums. Music libraries became random collections of singles, each with infuriatingly different file name structures and tag information, rather than cleanly presented albums.

And that, of course, meant playlists were important too.

“We did it because we could.”

The ethics of downloading copywrited material have been talked about over, and over again. I don’t want to rehash the argument here. At the time, especially as I and my peers were coming of age in high-school, we didn’t feel like criminals.

We did it because we could. It was available, we didn’t need to go out to a shop, and importantly we could listen on the same PC we were stuck to all night. We could manage our libraries, use cool software like Winamp to play in style. We could share with friends. It made tracks more popular than they might have otherwise been, and we got to enjoy them whenever we liked.

The music industry’s acceptance of the general model has won most people over. Spotify, Apple Music and others have practically killed the idea of file-sharing in the mainstream populace, at least in Western countries.

Apart from curated collections, and not waiting 15 minutes for the 96kbps MP3 to download, using something like Spotify doesn’t feel all that different from scrolling through Kazaa search results, functionality-wise.

Even as I feel such strong nostalgia and longing for a return to the days of community-focused software like my personal favourite, Ares, I enjoy my Tidal subscription and it’s instant delivery of music allows me to focus on other things during my day. I still curate my own library, though now with the knowledge that one day, it may disappear because of a commercial decision.

My one regret is losing, somewhere along the line, every track I downloaded all those years ago. It would be a thrilling time-capsule to devour.

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