These kids today take for granted that they can access pretty much whatever song they could possibly want to listen to without ever leaving the comforts of their bedroom. Back in my day, we had to drive to a little place we used to call “record stores” and decide, after perhaps hours of browsing and consideration, which gems were going to make it with us on the journey home. That was the process for music lovers in the 90s and early 00s. That was just the way it was done. These days, of course, its point, click, done and little if anything is considered regarding how awesome that ability actually is.
The past 10-15 years, the internet has changed the entire way people think about and consume music. And it’s effects are so commonplace that it’s easy to forget that this ability is largely due to the efforts of a handful of college and high school students in the late 90’s, the founders and developers of the world’s first file sharing network, Napster.
Of the documentaries being showcased at this year’s SXSW film festival, Downloaded has been receiving a lot of buzz. Directed by Alex Winter (of Bill S. Preston, esquire fame) Downloaded is a highly entertaining and engrossing look at Napster and the lasting impact it had on not only the music industry, but the internet in general.
Before Napster happened, the internet was essentially just a giant digital library where you would go to find tidbits of information at certain sites. What Napster did, and ultimately its lasting legacy in the world today, was open the door for file sharing; by enabling users to connect directly to other users in order to access the music stored on their hard drives, Napster revolutionized the way the world looked at digital information. By allowing this free flow of information, Napster decentralized the distribution of knowledge and made it possible for people the world over to share their thoughts and ideas with anyone who might be interested.
Of course, the rise and fall of the world’s first file sharing application is, at this point, legendary. With has much as has been written and talked about regarding Napster Downloaded has the potential to fall a little flat and tread familiar waters. And though the story is one we’ve all mostly heard before, Winter manages to establish a narrative that never feels superfluous and always feels enlightening. The film relies heavily on interviews with all the founding members of Napster, focused most heavily of course Shawn Fanning, the genius behind Napster.
Fanning, and his partner Sean Parker (whom you may remember as Justin Timberlake from The Social Network) took most of the heat when the RIAA came down on Napster with the wrath of the gods over copyright infringement and they are both interviewed in depth for this movie. Also interviewed are the heavyweights of the old school recording industry that first brought the heat down on Napster back in 2000. Using these interviews, interspersed with old news clips from the past decade, Winter pieces together a beautifully balanced and well-rounded dissertation on the long term effects of Napster and file sharing in general.
The debate on copyright infringement as it pertains to downloading music continues to this day. It was only just last year that the home of MegaUpload founder Kim Dotcom was raided with all the pomp and circumstance of a special ops raid in Afghanistan over copyright violations. Winter is careful to not pick any side in particular, however, and allows the story and the people involved to speak for themselves. The result is a fascinating look at the politics of an industry that grew complacent with their business model and fell woefully behind the times and a staunch reminder that in this day and age one person truly can make a difference.