Hey film fans! The Maryland Film Festival starts tonight! This is the last film I’ll be sneak previewing. It’s sort of great.
Before Facebook and Twitter—hell, before MySpace and Friendster—there was Napster, the music file sharing company that revolutionized, democratized, and completely freaked out the music industry.
Downloaded, the documentary on Napster, directed by Alex Winter (yes, that Alex Winter, from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), is about the rise and fall of this audacious start-up. But it’s also about the seismic generational divide between those who grew up expecting free things from the Internet and those who didn’t.
Napster started, as revolutions often do, in the mind of a young person—in this case, teenager Sean Fanning, a coder and music lover who wanted to find a more efficient way to share music with his friends. He developed the code for Napster and watched it take off like wildfire. First a few hundred people using it, then thousands, then millions.
He eventually joined forces with Sean Parker (later to be played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network), an entrepreneurial-minded buddy he’d met online. They hired a few more music-loving friends who were good at writing code and off they went.
This was the day of Internet startup businesses—the guys from Google, for example, idolized Napster and hoped to emulate its success—when venture capitalists were throwing billions at companies with 21-year-old CEOs in blue jeans who didn’t necessarily have a way to make money.
The record companies didn’t get it at first—saw Napster as a nuisance, not completely unlike the bootleg music you would see being sold in the streets. “We were ambushed,” says one record company exec, in hindsight. When they realized that Napster was allowing hundreds of thousands of people to download and share music for free, they pounced. Lawsuits were filed. Congressional hearings were held.
As for the artists themselves? Their reactions were mixed.
The Spice Girls, shown in archival footage, claim ignorance (convincingly). “We’re not that into computers,” says Posh Spice.
The jam band Dispatch, interviewed today, feel they owe their success to Napster, which allowed their music to reach a much larger audience.
While instinctive iconclasts Henry Rollins and David Bowie both embraced the Napster revolution, the file sharing site also had some surprising and powerful musician foes—namely, metal band Metallica and gangster rapper Dr. Dre.
“Metal and gangster rap,” Sean Parker muses in the film. “The two least likely to be going after us.”
Downloaded, which is being distributed by VH1, has access to MTV’s frontline reporting of the Napster controversy. (The scenes of Lars Ulrich from Metallica holding a sit-in of sorts in front of Napster’s offices are priceless—possibly the least metal thing anyone has ever done.) There are also clips of Jon Stewart cracking wise about the greed of record companies on The Daily Show.
In the end, Napster’s model was unsustainable. Sean Parker, who made the mistake of using the word “pirated” in an internal memo (lawyers instructed them to use “shared” instead) was scapegoated and fired (ironic in light of his treatment of Eduardo Saverin—if you believe The Social Network’s version of events, that is) and the company was forced to file for bankruptcy and eventually folded.
Of course, Napster may have failed, but online music sharing is here to stay. (Steve Jobs, visionary genius that he was, was the first to truly monetize it, with iTunes.)
And Sean Fanning, a poor kid from suburban Massachusetts who had no idea what he was getting himself into, still seems shell-shocked, even 10 years later.
He’s able to talk about his experiences articulately, but he has a far-off look in his eyes, as if contemplating a digital horizon that should’ve belonged to him.
To find out when you can see Downloaded, and all the other films at the Maryland Film Festival, go here.