After the Grateful Dead sued me, I almost invented Napster


I almost invented Napster in 1996, more than a year before Napster launched its infamous peer to peer music sharing application. At the time I was trying to solve the problem of distributing digital music files to a large set of users without incurring the costs associated with hosting it on a website. My site was being sued by the Grateful Dead and I would need to shut it down unless I could find a new way to share the music. I was the right place at the right time working on file sharing but the idea of peer to peer transfers eluded me. I couldn’t get outside the box.

In the mid nineties while I was still at the University of Texas studying computer science, I started Deadabase a website where Grateful Dead fans could download MP3 tracks of Grateful Dead concerts recorded by other fans. At the time MP3's were just starting to become popular but the modern online music services like iTunes, Napster, Pandora, and Spotify that we take for granted today didn’t exist yet.

Soon after I started Deadabase a fellow University of Texas computer science student Alexander Bibighaus noticed the site and reached out to me to join forces. He would focus on the technology and I would focus on everything else. (Years later we would co-found Zosh together.)

If at first you don’t get outside the box, keep trying eventually you will.

Within the first few months of launching Deadabase we had over 30,000 downloads a day and our bill for bandwidth was nearing $6,000 a month. Since we were both cash strapped college students, we decided to install Doubleclick ad banners on the top of the website to help offset the expenses of running the site. At the end of the next month, we turned a small profit.

Doubleclick ad banners on top of the website generated $7,000 a month.

We enjoyed working on Deadabase and especially liked the feedback we received from fans who were able to find recordings of their favorite concerts. We were passionate about Deadabase and the happiness it brought to many fans but naive to think that the Grateful Dead would be okay with what we were doing.

Our traffic was growing exponentially and we started to get some big press hits like CNN and the New Times. After a short while a law firm representing the Grateful Dead stumbled on to us and quickly sent me a cease and desist letter stating that they represent the Grateful Dead corporation and that we did not have permission to distribute their copyrighted music.

The Grateful Dead has long allowed fans to record their concerts onto tapes and trade those tapes with other fans. You could purchase a “taper ticket” to a Dead show and use high end recording equipment, digital audio tapes and fancy expensive microphones to record their concerts. Some fans even recorded shows directly from the sound board. Tapers would then trade those tapes with other fans. They were essentially creating a catalog of every live Grateful Dead concert. With Deadabase we took those fan recorded shows and encoded them into MP3's. We placed them on our website for anyone to download free of charge making them available to a much larger fan base. It was our intention to continue the legacy of trading tapes but modernize it with MP3's and make it more accessible.

Fan microphones recording a Phish concert. From Phish.com.

We were naive to think that the Grateful Dead would see it the same way. From their perspective we were doing large scale distribution of their copyrighted music. Trading tapes was one thing but distributing those tapes to thousands of users per day was different. It was a large scale operation in their view. Worse, it was generating revenue from the ad banners.

After a thorough negotiation the Grateful Dead they decided to allow us to continue to distribute the music, but we couldn't generate any revenues doing it. Not even as a not for profit company. The banner ads that were paying the bills would need to be removed.

So here is the dilemma: How could we distribute hundred of thousands of MP3’s without incurring massive bandwidth bills? The answer was peer to peer distribution and Napster was the first real implementation.

Alexander and I spent hours working on this problem but we didn’t come up peer to peer. We were going to lose Deadabase because we didn’t have the money to keep it running in its current form so we had a lot of motivation to invent something new. We were in the right place at the right time trying to solve the right problem and we didn’t do it.

If our website was the box, peer to peer was outside the box and we just couldn’t get there. We came up with idea of scheduled download slots where fans would get a specific time that they could download their show, and few other bad ideas that all revolved around central distribution from our website.

Peer to peer networks offload the file transfers to peers rather than a central source like a website.

It was only a year later that Napster was released and when it did it looked so obvious. Why didn’t I think of that first? I was so close but not close enough.

The irony about the whole situation is that while we couldn’t figure out a way to save Deadabase, we did pitch a rough sketch of something similar to the iTunes Music store to the Grateful Dead. We offered to build them a branded music portal that would make them the first band to get behind online digital music. They didn’t want to have anything to do with us or the Internet and missed out on the opportunity. Four years later Apple launched the iTunes Store which has gone on to generate billions.

I don’t regret the experience and if I could do it again I would. In 2008 Alexander and I did do it again, we co-founded Zosh an iPhone app company which would eventually be acquired by YouSendIt giving us the success that eluded us with Deadabase. If at first you don’t get outside the box, keep trying, eventually you will.


Originally published at joshkerr.com.

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