REVIEW: Downloaded

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With all the focus we place on our iPhones, iPads, iPods, Droids, Windows Phones, Nexuses, etc., it’s easy to forget that Napster, the controversial music file sharing software, was a major spark for mobile convergence. Napster let millions of people download as much music as they wanted to for free, demonstrating how pervasive music was. Apple capitalized on that by creating an easy-to-use portable device to manage the music, a device that was the catalyst for an era of mobile innovation that’s really only JUST beginning.

Directed by Alex Winter of “Bill & Ted” fame (as well as that bizarre, NSFW Butthole Surfers movie), Downloaded is a great reminder of Napster’s importance and gives them credit where credit is due. But it makes no mention of how the company MIGHT have survived its legal problems were it not for certain business decisions…decisions that were mostly made by one man.

Despite that one shortcoming, Downloaded is a movie that HAD to be made. No one has ever really denied Napster’s historical importance but not enough have gone out the way to emphasize it.

Napster was the first real instance of the Internet-based business model pulling consumers away from the old economy business model. Or, to quote from one of the Downloaded interviewees, “This is the first time technology actually attacked the existing system and started to take it away.”

Napster’s rise began at the tail-end of the dotcom rush, just as the old economy started walking away from Internet due its uncertain profit model. But when they saw how Napster gave consumers exactly what they wanted, while all but destroying the music industry in the process, they regrouped their Internet efforts instead of ignoring them. Napster forced the old economy to take the Internet seriously.

Downloaded starts with a short but excellent introductory history of the Internet and nicely segues into Napster’s beginnings. How Shawn Fanning was trying to make it easier to find MP3 music files and how, with the input of his friends from IRC such as Sean Parker and Jordan Ritter, he knocked out the first version of Napster.

It shows how Fanning and the other Napster developers would work around the clock to improve the software, all of whom would get a the rush after solving and figuring out problems. Combine that with many of them living and partying together, and a camaraderie was created among the team as it continued to better the Napster software. In effect, Downloaded provides an excellent snapshot of the hacking culture that’s so prevalent nowadays.

Music artists such as Henry Rollins, Noel Gallagher from Oasis and DJ Spooky (who also created Downloaded’s soundtrack) make excellent points about the how music business was way behind on tech. Music biz men like Chris Blackwell from Island Records, Seymour Stein from Sire and former Sony Music CEO Don Ienner provide an excellent historical perspective of the music biz.

Also interviewed is Hilary Rosen, who was president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) at the time of the Napster incident, and whom was painted as public enemy number one by the pro-Naspter community during the legal fight. While she certainly makes arguments in favor of the music industry, she also concedes that the industry got rid of their technology departments, which allowed things like Napster to come about. In terms of other music biz mistakes, Chris Blackwell properly counters the record label’s argument that Napster was taking money out of musician’s pockets, pointing out that the labels didn’t pay them that much anyway.

Despite the industry’s mistakes, and they made many, Napster was illegal and the industry had a strong case against Napster when they eventually sued the company. And in discussing the case, Downloaded is a little skewed in favor of Napster.

For example: Parker, Fanning and other Napster employees claim the music industry refused to settle the case once it went to court. True, but Downloaded misses that fact that the RIAA only filed suit on the industry’s behalf after many failed attempts to reach an agreement with Napster, who gave the industry the runaround throughout the entire process.

The employees also say that they regret not at least trying to get the Supreme Court to hear the case after losing in Appeals Court. But that only could have happened if the Ninth Circuit court heard it first, which they chose not to do-another point that the movie fails to mention.

But the way in which Downloaded presents the music industry’s legal position is really just a matter of opinion and not a drawback of the documentary. What is a drawback (a BIG drawback) is that Downloaded rarely mentions the man who made lots of rash decisions that prevented Napster from properly dealing with its legal problems, something they REALLY had to do.

That man isn’t Shawn Fanning, it’s his uncle, John. And while Shawn was certainly the public face of Napster in the press, John Fanning was in charge of the company.

As chronicled in Joseph Menn’s All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning’s Napster (which I’ve previously reviewed), John Fanning, a man with some technical knowledge, looked at Napster and agreed to help his nephew turn it into a business. On the premise that the then 18 year-old Shawn was too young to be taken seriously as the company’s business leader, John convinced his nephew to give him 70% ownership of the company, giving Shawn only 30%.

John Fanning’s manipulative moves against his nephew were bad enough, but the end result of these moves was worse. Since the Napster incident occurred during the dotcom bubble, John was always looking to sell Napster and get the big multi-million dollar payoff that was so prevalent at the time.

But before providing funding, all potential Napster investors not only insisted that the company prioritize dealing with its legal issues before seeking the big payoff, but also wanted to reduce John Fanning’s role in the company…removing it completely in some cases. John realized this and as he was majority owner, turned down practically every good funding offer that the company received, including one invloving venture capitalist powerhouse, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

As a result of John’s decisions, Napster was never forced to properly deal with its legal problems, making their getting sued an inevitability. All the Rave effectively argues that if they had dealt with them, Naspter may have survived.

The book’s characterization of John Fanning could also be chalked up as a matter of opinion, but it’s backed up by legal documents and corroborated statements, lending the characterization an air of validity. So the matter deserves at least a discussion about John within Downloaded…the fact that it doesn’t is disappointing.

Still, the documentary is still worth watching. Downloaded properly captures the zeitgeist that Napster generated: the MTV coverage, the legal battles, the congressional hearings, Chuck D., Metallica, the overall happy feeling of using Napster…all are represented well in the movie. Personally, I was very happy to learn that Shawn Fanning would eventually get the multi-million dollar payoff he so richly deserved.

In the end, Downloaded isn’t telling any lies, but the whole truth isn’t there. It’s absolutely worth a watch but to understand the entire Napster experience, Joseph Menn’s book is also worth a read.

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