There is a dirty secret about Napster-the software was created with the intent purpose of wanting to pay artists and record labels. Even today, there is a misconception about Napster's original directive. It was founded on the sharing of copyrighted material, but the creators and owners desperately wanted to legitimize the business but there was one unforeseen issue; no record label would play ball with them. Not one. When Napster filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 2001, the labels felt they had won the war, what they did not realize is they simply achieved victory in battle only and by fighting that battle, they did not look at the large-scale scope and ultimately lost the war the day Napster shut down. It has been over a dozen years since Napster has been a force, but their rise and fall is now been given a new viewpoint with great fervor in an eye-opening documentary Downloaded.
Downloaded was initially conceived back in 2002 as a drama by Alex Winter, who is best known as "Bill" from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Winter has made for himself behind the camera directing music videos and commercials and these talents and experience come into full bloom in Downloaded. When the project was sidelined, he reimagined it as a documentary. This was a key decision because unlike Facebook (whose rise was documented brilliantly in The Social Network), Napster did not have a happy conclusion. Despite having over 80-million users at its peak, it ceased being a functioning business due to copyright-infringements in 2001. So what is the true story behind it all? It took Winter almost half of a decade, but he was finally able to get all of the key players to sit down and go on camera. Make no mistake about it; Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker are the stars of the film. What Winter captures with magnificent splendor is the excitement they felt in creating this service. Napster never was conceived as a tool to steal music; it was to be sold to the music industry . This one narrative is fundamental to the film. Most people remember Napster as a service that thrived on sharing copyrighted material but the film drives home how hard Napster tried to work with the music industry but they were met with indifference until the very end.
It is easy to forget the nuances that made Napster so revolutionary. Winter does not glaze over there and highlights several key elements of Napster that are easy to forget through interviews: 1) The search engine developed for the Napster was faster and more useful than anything that had previously existed. We have to remember this was a few years before the emergence of Google and mostly done via a dial-up method. 2) At its peak, Napster housed more recorded music in one place than any other site, legal of illegal, does today. 3) This was the first time that musical technology was created outside of the music industry, hence the resistance to it. 4) In the end Napster was not so much a site thrived in piracy but a failed business. These four crucial fundamentals drive the film's narrative.
For the first time, Winter gets the comprehensive portrait of many of the substantial individuals on the inside of Napster, the RIAA and the recording industry. If this film had been done in 2004-2005, it would have been an entirely different and less effective film. By doing it now, those on the Napster side can look back on it knowing what they were doing was mostly right, those inside the music industry can go on the record about how they were scared and the audience can sit there in disbelief that it all happened. Chris Blackwell, the man who created Island Records and is responsible for shepherding the careers of U2 and Bob Marley, gives poignant reflection on the service and how far the labels went to destroying it because they say it as a threat. Don Ienner also provides precious insight as to how the heads of the major record labels could not agree on what day of the week it was let alone whether or not to license their music or buy a digital service that could kill the billion-dollar Compact Disc business. Hilary Rosen, the then head of the RIAA comes off as warm and affable- something she did not in 2000, but it also raises the eternal question; what exactly does the RIAA do?
The interviews are given with a sense of nostalgia along with an awareness of everything that transpired in the shutdown of Napster in 2001. This is most likely because as much as the labels and some artists thought fans were stealing from them anyone would love to go back to the record sales of 2000 (785-million CDs were sold). If the film has any flaw, it lies in the fact that Winter did not speak to the fact that at Napster's height, the recording business sold more CD's than at any other point in their existence. Napster was on the cover of Time magazine and while many saw it as a threat, it is my personal belief that it would have solidified music's standing in the marketplace. Back in 2000, with the emergence of the internet, there all of a sudden was more competition for everything from an entertainment perspective. After years of selling their films for $100 for rental, the movie industry started selling DVD's straight to the consumer giving them the choice whether to rent or buy. Video games were becoming increasing popular, internet chat rooms were thriving but amongst all of this, I have never seen people as engaged or in love with music than I did during Napster's sort reign. One thing the industry never seemed to understand was there was a community of fans discovering each other's music and it can't be coincidence that when Napster had 80 million users in 2000, it coincided with the highest recorded album sales ever. There was love, excitement, anticipation and more of a communal feeling to music than there ever has been before. What the label executives could not fathom was that when they shut down Napster, music fans viewed it as the ultimate middle finger salute. Those who had their love for music reborn felt scorned, turned their back on the industry, and never looked back. A close friend of mine had left music behind and between 1999 and 2002 saw more concerts than he had seen in the entirety of his life and it was a result of rediscovering music he forgot and uncovering entire discographies of music he never knew existed. When I asked him a few years ago why he stopped discovering new and old music after the shutdown of Napster, he gave me two reasons. The first was he never felt any other company provided better software and the second was because other interests took over including photography and sports. In short, he felt the music industry did not care and his interests, like many, went elsewhere.
Downloaded isn't perfect and I wish it had focused on more of the fan experience and excitement from outside the company but it documents a music service that didn't just change the music industry but the internet as well. In the end, the strengths of Downloaded outweigh my concerns because it is a film other sectors of the entertainment industry can watch to learn lessons from. The music industry never recovered. In a recent interview at the Guardian Edinburgh Television Festival about the streaming Netflix series House of Cards star Kevin Spacey summarized as to why they committed to a full season of the show and release all episodes online simultaneously; "the audience wants control". He went on to say "Give people what they want – when they want it – in the form they want it in – at a reasonable price – and they'll more likely pay for it rather than steal it, well, some will still steal it, but I believe this new model can take a bit out of piracy.". I am sure the music industry would have had growing pains, but they would not have turned off their audience, many of which put their energy and time into binge television viewing, video games and DVD's. In his number one hit from 1972, Don McLean speaks of "The Day the Music Died" as being February 3, 1959 when Richie Valens, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly died in a plane crash. As Alex Winter documents ferociously in Downloaded, the day the music industry truly died was in 2001 when they successfully shut down Napster believing that digital music services would simply fade away. Winter's tale is bittersweet one because it stood to not to destroy the industry but make it grow.
Downloaded is available now digitally on several Video On-Demand services including iTunes, Xbox, Amazon and several others. It is playing theatrically in various cities and will play on VH1 in 2014. ,
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter