Hi. This is a monthly column where I'll be writing about something I've been unhealthily obsessed with. It is basically a written accompaniment to this meme. But with more music. Thanks.
For a certain generation, there are two versions of “online.” There’s the “online” of today, in which we exist online; our phones tracking us in our pockets, watching box-sets over Netflix in the evening, WhatsApping our friends in between bites of dinner. And then there’s the “online” that was then, before the mid-2000s, which sat alongside an “offline.” That version involved turning on the computer and hearing it click and whirr into action. It involved waiting for your mum to get off the house phone so you could access the dial-up connection. It involved plugging into a secret space that existed inside this big, grey heated object and tap, tap, tapping on a keyboard. But, crucially, it was limited to software like MSN Messenger, Internet Explorer, AOL and, for some of us: LimeWire.
LimeWire was a free peer-to-peer file-sharing network that existed from 2000 until ten years later when it was shut down by federal court following a four-year legal battle with the US music industry. By then, it had already disappeared into obscurity alongside Napster, which came and went before it. Streaming apps were becoming ubiquitous and even the idea of “illegally downloading MP3s” felt like a faded way of doing things. Speak to anyone under the age of 21 about LimeWire, and they’ll probably think you’re chatting about a vape flavour or subgenre. But for me and other people in their mid to late-20s, LimeWire represented a treasure chest. It sounds absurd now that YouTube etc exists, but the fact you could type a song that you wanted into a box, and that song would then appear a second later, felt like a revelation.
When I was 13/14 there was this magic window of time after dinner and before bed in which I could escape to a brand new world that felt simultaneously anonymous and expansive. I would scroll through files upon files until the darkness behind my lids resembled The Matrix, discovering bands like My Bloody Valentine while looking for Sonic Youth (so many songs were labelled wrong) or diving into late-90s club film soundtracks (there was a lot from Human Traffic and Trainspotting on there for some reason) or unearthing deep cuts (shout out Bowie’s cover of “Sorrow”). Downloading music back then would involve wading through porn files with names like “6girlslesbianthreesomexxxgangbang.wav” and dead, virus-filled links that caused pop-ups to explode across the screen like bacteria. But once the tracks were yours they'd be burned onto a mix CD for your walkman later, each name scribbled on disc in sharpie. There was definitely a ritualism to the whole thing that felt satisfying and novelty, and which I have not been able to replicate – or even definitively pinpoint – since.
In a recent essay for Hazlitt, writer Helena Fitzgerald brilliantly describes the vibe and energy of these early internet excursions. “The whole internet had something sexual about it in its early days, and that was much of what got us on there,” she writes, “it was the place where we were allowed to talk about things we would never say out loud.” To me, the use of LimeWire wasn’t “sexual” in the way, say, early-2000s chat rooms might be for people, but there was a secrecy and intimacy to the process that was appealing. As Fitzgerald points out in her piece, your adolescence is a time when you’re figuring out your tastes, and desires, and who you want to be. On LimeWire, you could lose yourself for hours searching for the perfect thing to listen to, and because it felt like no one was watching, that could be anything. Before then, the only way to access music was physical, or through radio and music TV, but those platforms were often consumed publicly, so had the propensity to be performative. Suddenly, you didn’t have to pretend to like watching Kerrang or Kiss or whatever was cool among your friends. You could download Britney albums until 2AM, or get heavily into Norwegian metal. Whatever: LimeWire made your taste yours.
The world LimeWire introduced to music fans hasn’t exactly gone away – it’s just become so familiar that we barely notice it’s there, like breakfast cereal or the bus route to work. Spending hours down a late-night Internet hole – clicking through Soundcloud links, letting the YouTube algorithm pull you into a tunnel of 80s Japanese pop – has become the way things are, rather than a new mode of being. There’s a different energy to the whole process, too. Instead of being plugged into a machine after school in your bedroom and navigating through literal shit with the hyper-focus of a cyber detective, you can just listen to music on your phone immediately, wherever. In that way, perhaps it feels less private, less like climbing alone into the darkness for the very first time to find yourself.
All of that said, I don’t miss LimeWire. It’s obviously way better that young people today can listen to their favourite track on Spotify or whatever rather than having to sift through viruses in the hope they can download a nu metal mega-mix that doesn’t actually exist, or else accidentally stumble across a video of a real-life human decapitation while searching for t.A.T.u. But I do credit the software for opening my world up. If it wasn’t for LimeWire, I probably wouldn’t have all the Placebo B-Sides etched into my brain. I would never have the Virgin Suicides soundtrack burnt to disc. And I might not have ventured out the confines of what I was “supposed” to like – at least not so soon. LimeWire made me a music nerd and an Internet nerd all at once, and I’d hazard a guess it did the same for a lot of others.