Like a lot of curious teenagers around the turn of the century, I was quickly learning everything I could about acquiring music online. Long before iTunes, even longer before Zune and Spotify’s subscriptions, downloading MP3s was a wild frontier. You’d hit up one site which had some of the songs you wanted, but some were rubbish quality, so you’d hop to the next site and so forth. In an era when a four-minute radio hit would take ten times that amount of time to acquire, Napster was grooming all these disparate communities into one place where you could eventually find everything you ever wanted. It was the beginning of one of history’s most glorious disruptions. It was also the beginning of the end for Napster.
In this new documentary by Alex “Bill S. Preston, Esq.” Winter, we’re expertly guided through the creation, trials, and death of Napster, a program that, before Google could use the defense, merely provided the contacts for users to share illegal content with, but never actually touched the illegal content itself. Through Napster’s servers – and later, OpenNap spin-offs – users were able to change the face of music forever. From an industry that would push $20 CDs to the public with elaborate advertising campaigns and videos fronted by MTV came an irrationally-charged pin to pop the revolution’s balloon and ultimately cause a greater fire than they anticipated.
As Winter pointed out in interviews about the film, much of the Napster coverage was done, ironically, by MTV, so having access to their archives for this documentary proved invaluable. Here, we get to see young versions of co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker juxtaposed with their older selves, their faces now etched by the passage of time, and over a decade’s worth of post-Napster startups and failures. Back in those days, when using the internet often blocked telephone calls in and out of the house with a chuckle of the modem, Parker abstained from facial hair and Fanning looked, well, pretty much the same. These two IRC pals created Napster to become a potential business and went to the record labels first to try and interdict their vengeance, but the service simply got too powerful too quickly, causing the panic of the record labels (who are all represented here) and many a college IT worker who had to deal with Napster clogging up all their bandwidth. Little did these Napster guys know that within a year, they’d be tipping the music industry over on its head and testifying before Congress.
Downloaded takes one of the most transformative, world-changing events of my life and presents it with all the nostalgia I could ever want while filling in the gaps of legal wrangling that kept the service alive for as long it could. As the fight wears on, Fanning becomes disillusioned and Parker is dismissed in much the same way that would later fell him at Plaxo and Facebook. While Millennials born after 9/11 could never understand why acquiring music is so different now, Downloaded sums up the sea change in such a fantastic way that I wished it didn’t end. It’s as if Winters DeLoreaned to the past and prepared this slice of my humble Colorado high school life for me to experience again, as if it was an all-new adventure.
Photo credit: Wired