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Napster-Bomb Me: A Brief History of Radiohead Fans Downloading Mislabeled MP3s

Ringer illustration/photo via Getty Images
Ringer illustration/photo via Getty Images

On Sunday afternoon, when the track listing for Radiohead’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, was released to the world, plenty of fans felt an odd combination of skepticism, elation, and nostalgia for shitty dial-up internet connections. It was because of the album’s final track, “True Love Waits,” a haunting wisp of a song that the band has been playing live since 1995 and has, in the subsequent decades, become a kind of Holy Grail of Radiohead B-sides. The band was rumored to have recorded a studio version during the OK Computer sessions back in 1997, but that recording has never seen the light of day. That elusive studio version of “True Love Waits” became one of the more sought-after MP3s in the early days of file-sharing — and thus, a very popular misattributed MP3 on notoriously unregulated sites like Napster, Kazaa, and Audiogalaxy. Sometimes these bait-and-switch tactics led to new musical discoveries (as one user on the I Love Music message board noted, “I found Sigur Ros’s ‘Svefn G Englar’ under Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’”), but more often than not, misattributed MP3s were a source of frustration and deep disappointment. When I first listened to A Moon Shaped Pool on Sunday night, it was strange to click an MP3 that said “Radiohead: ‘True Love Waits’” and not be treated to the opening strains of, say, Crazy Town’s “Butterfly.”

I’d always just assumed that mislabeled MP3s in the early days of file-sharing were the result of human error or, in a few cases, some enterprising white rapper who thought he would get discovered by uploading his demos to Kazaa under the file name “RARE_UNRELEASED _BEASTIE_BOYS.mp3.” But when I researched the weird world of mislabeled MP3s for a Pitchfork column I wrote a few years ago, I couldn’t believe how much semisophisticated machinery was lurking behind this phenomenon. It turns out that in the late ’90s and early 2000s, there were multiple sites advocating the planting of so-called “Napster bombs” (sometimes also called “cuckoo’s eggs”) on purpose, for vaguely political reasons. One musician–computer programmer set up a website evangelizing the uploading of Napster bombs as a form of “culture jamming” (“where the stream of mass media consciousness is polluted [or enriched, depending on your viewpoint] with creative fraud”). The Fix brothers had a slightly more righteous reason for setting up the Cuckoo’s Egg Project, an online exhortation/tutorial for uploading purposely mislabeled MP3s: Michael Fix’s wife was a musician, and he saw the rampant rise of online piracy as a threat to her and other musicians’ livelihoods.

And so it starts to become clear why “Rare Unreleased Radiohead” MP3s made up such a disproportionate number of cuckoo’s eggs and Napster bombs. For one thing, Radiohead were at the peak of their popularity and creative powers in the P2P era (which coincided with their back-to-back masterpieces, OK Computer and Kid A). And for another … well, at least in theory, the Venn diagram of “Radiohead fan” and “person who spent a lot of time on the computer in 1999” has some significant overlap. And then, of course, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has always been vocal about musicians getting the money that’s owed to them, and his opinions on this matter have become even more vehement and uh, colorful, with time.

In certain ways, Radiohead have had a forward-thinking approach to the digitization of music (for example, their pay-what-you-want release strategy for In Rainbows), but in other ways, they’ve remained defiantly old-fashioned (they teased the release of A Moon Shaped Pool by mailing actual paper leaflets to some of their fans). Last week, the band further shored up publicity for the album by deleting its entire internet presence, which, in its own way, felt like the ultimate act of nostalgia. It was like they were saying, “Remember the days when it was just the music that mattered?!” But the strange early-internet memories they’ve evoked with the release of “True Love Waits” tell a more complicated story about music in the digital age: You can try your best to control its flow, but there’s always going to be someone out there waiting to jam up the machinery.

This piece originally appeared in the May 11, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.