What are the old music download programs?

Music downloading and peer-to-peer file sharing programs exploded in popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The ability for users to easily download mp3 files of their favorite songs and albums for free revolutionized the music industry. Companies like Napster and Limewire pioneered this new digital landscape, though not always legally. This ushered in an era of rapid evolution in how music was distributed and consumed.

In 1999, Napster launched as one of the first and most well-known peer-to-peer file sharing services focused on music. It allowed users to freely upload and download mp3 files from each other rather than having to purchase them. At its peak, Napster had over 80 million registered users before ultimately being shut down in 2001 due to legal issues over copyright infringement.

Other services quickly emerged to fill the void left by Napster’s closure. Programs like Kazaa, Limewire, BearShare and WinMX offered similar peer-to-peer mp3 sharing capabilities. Some iterated on the model by decentralizing operations to try to avoid the same legal fate as Napster. However, most of these services declined in usage as legal battles mounted and legitimate pay services like iTunes grew dominant in the mid 2000s.


Napster was one of the first and most popular peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing programs for downloading music. It was launched in 1999 by Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. Napster allowed users to share MP3 music files with each other for free via a centralized server. At its peak, Napster boasted over 80 million registered users sharing billions of song files.

In the late 1990s, sharing files over the internet was difficult for consumers. Napster made P2P file sharing incredibly easy and accessible for the average music fan. Users simply had to download the Napster software, create an account, search for music, and click to download MP3s from other users. Napster’s catalog of music grew rapidly as more users joined the network.

The central servers and search mechanism allowed users to easily find any song. However, this centralization also facilitated millions of copyright violations, as users swapped music without permission. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued Napster for copyright infringement. Though Napster lost and ultimately shut down its original P2P service, it pioneered music downloads and demonstrated the power of online file sharing.


Kazaa was one of the most popular peer-to-peer file sharing programs that gained widespread use after the downfall of the original peer-to-peer file sharing service, Napster. Kazaa was released in March 2001 by Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, the creators of Skype. Kazaa’s decentralized, fast, and free file-sharing service quickly attracted millions of users. By 2002, Kazaa had surpassed Napster in global monthly downloads, reaching over 3 million downloads per day at its peak in February 2003 (New Scientist).

Kazaa enabled users to exchange MP3 music files, videos, applications, documents and more over the internet. Its FastTrack protocol improved search performance and download speeds compared to other services. Kazaa’s popularity paved the way for decentralized peer-to-peer networks and demonstrated the massive demand for digital media file sharing.


Limewire was one of the most popular open source peer-to-peer file sharing programs in the early 2000s. Launched in 2000, Limewire utilized the gnutella network to allow users to search for and download music, movies, games and other files from each other’s computers (Arista Records LLC; Atlantic Recording Corporation; Arista Music). At its peak, Limewire had over 50 million monthly active users and significant market share among file sharing programs (Arista Records LLC et al v. Lime Wire). This open source software became popular for its simplicity and ease of finding almost any song. However, Limewire was shut down in 2010 after losing a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by major record labels.


BearShare was one of the earliest and most popular peer-to-peer file sharing programs that allowed users to search for and download music files such as MP3s for free. Launched in December 2000 by Free Peers, Inc., BearShare was notable for having an ad-supported free version along with a paid “Pro” version that offered additional features [1].

At its peak popularity in the early 2000s, BearShare claimed to have over 20 million users actively sharing files at any given time [2]. It served as an alternative to early peer-to-peer networks like Napster and Kazaa for finding and downloading music files. BearShare used the Gnutella network protocol which allowed for decentralized file sharing without a central server.

BearShare made it easy for everyday internet users to find virtually any song they wanted without paying for it. While some argued this promoted music piracy, BearShare contended it was merely providing the file sharing platform and that users were responsible for how it was used. The ability for people to obtain free music through BearShare was a major draw during the file sharing boom of the early 2000s.


WinMX was a popular Windows-based peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing program that launched in 1999. Developed by FrontCode Technologies and originally created by Kevin Hearn, WinMX was one of the earliest and most widely used P2P networks in the early 2000s.

Unlike Napster, WinMX utilized a decentralized network rather than a central server. This made it more difficult to shut down, as there was no central repository storing file information. At its peak popularity, WinMX boasted over 10 million monthly users sharing music, movies, software, and other files.

WinMX offered features like chat rooms, instant messaging, and file searches to connect users. It became known for its downloading speed and ability to find obscure media files. However, WinMX was not without controversy, as much of the file sharing on its network was unauthorized and illegal. The recording industry filed lawsuits against FrontCode for copyright infringement.

In 2005, after losing one of these lawsuits, FrontCode ceased operations. However, modified versions of WinMX continued to be developed by third parties. The network limped on with a diminished userbase until it was shut down for good in 2014. But for a time, WinMX was key force in decentralized file sharing and empowering users to freely distribute content online.

(“WinMX downloads – Virtual Dr Forums-Computer Tech Support.” https://discussions.virtualdr.com/showthread.php?130109-winmx-downloads Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.)


AudioGalaxy was a web-based peer-to-peer file sharing application launched in 2002 that allowed users to search for and download music files in the MP3 format. At its peak, AudioGalaxy had over 2.5 million users before it was shut down in 2002 due to various legal issues surrounding copyright infringement (Music streaming services subscribers market shares 2022).

As a decentralized file-sharing network, AudioGalaxy connected users directly to each other’s computers to transfer music files, rather than storing files on central servers. This allowed users to access a wider variety of content, though much of it violated copyright laws.

By enabling the widespread distribution of copyrighted music without artist permission or compensation, AudioGalaxy played a major role in the early digital music piracy era of the early 2000s. Its shutdown marked one of the first big fights over peer-to-peer music sharing online.


iMesh was one of the popular free peer-to-peer filesharing programs in the early 2000s. Originally released in 2001 by Israel-based Purple deployed Ltd, iMesh allowed users to easily share and download music and video files. In its heyday, iMesh grew to have over 51 million registered users across the world.

Some of the key features of iMesh included fast downloads powered by its Gnutella-based P2P network, the ability to download multiple files at once, and media player integration for easy music listening. The service also introduced innovations like the “What’s New” list to highlight newly shared content on the network.

While immensely popular for a time, iMesh ultimately began to decline in usage with the shutdown of some of its services amidst legal pressures on filesharing. It ultimately ceased operations in 2011. Though gone, for a time iMesh was one of the top destinations for music lovers to expand their digital libraries.


Soulseek is a peer-to-peer file sharing network and application launched in 1999 focusing primarily on sharing music files. At its peak, Soulseek had several million registered users and 80,000-100,000 concurrent users during peak hours according to Wikipedia.

As a decentralized network, Soulseek does not track comprehensive user statistics, but various unofficial estimates over the years suggest an extremely dedicated user base. For example, one Reddit user in 2020 stated they get around 5 visitors per day to their music collection, downloading around 100GB/month.

While primarily used for music, Soulseek also enables users to share various file types. Its focus on rare, obscure and unreleased music has earned it a niche appeal amongst music enthusiasts looking to discover more obscure content.


In summary, peer-to-peer music downloading programs like Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, and others experienced a meteoric rise in popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These services enabled easy sharing of music files between users around the world. At their peak, programs like Napster had over 80 million users illegally downloading songs. However, this free exchange of copyrighted content soon caught the attention of the music industry and labels began filing massive lawsuits against the services. In conjunction with the proliferation of paid music stores like iTunes and streaming services like Spotify, this legal pressure led to the demise of most mainstream P2P music downloading by the mid 2000s. While some niche P2P networks persist, music piracy has significantly declined thanks to the rise of convenient, affordable streaming options.

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