In the spring of 1998, if you heard a Limp Bizkit song on the radio and liked it, you might’ve gone to Tower Records and purchased the band’s latest CD. The following year, everything changed. Something happened that ushered the music industry intractably toward a future without terrestrial radio, without Tower Records, and without CDs.
What happened was Napster.
It was a file-sharing service that served as great cosmic jukebox, an incredible new way to hear music before you bought it—or as the record industry feared, without buying it at all. Napster arrived with the kind of fanfare that accompanies any revolution and quickly became entangled in litigation. In retrospect, it may be tempting to discuss the creators of Napster and the music industry in terms of heroes and villains, but there’s more to the story than that. In the new documentary Downloaded, director Alex Winter takes an even-handed look at the rise and fall of Napster, and where it’s led us.
"I was more interested in looking for validation for the record industry than for Napster," Winter says. "When the Beatles come along, and everybody who was in a band before them starts talking about how stupid these haircuts look, it’s easy for history to side with the Beatles. In this instance, it’s dangerous to side with the tech industry just because they’re sexier than some guy from the record industry still listening to Donna Summer."
In the late '80s and early '90s, Winter, then an actor and budding filmmaker (he’d go on to direct for TV, film, and commercials, and, of course, star in the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure franchise), was the kind of tech-head who hung out in the Usenet news groups that anticipated the Internet as we know it. When Napster finally arrived toward the turn of the century, he was blown away.
"It was just such a huge, radical, almost laughable improvement over what we had all been fishing around with before," he says. "Even in dial-up, it was crazy fast. It was a working global community that average people could use, and then did, in the millions, quickly."
Seemingly overnight, Napster sprang up at college campuses across America. Although the idea of it may seem quaint to those weaned on Spotify, the file-sharing service was groundbreaking in the way it invited indexing. It allowed users to find music they’d only read about, bootlegs that weren’t available commercially, and obscure regional music from all over the world.
Almost as compelling as Napster itself was its creation myth: two naïve, brilliant young guys invented a computer program that changed the world and then had to contend with the scorn of the music industry and, famously, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich.
"I quickly became fascinated by the kind of travails that Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker ended up in—the legal skirmish with the labels—and was sort of watching the democratization of culture on the one hand and the response to that on the other. I became really fascinated by these two erstwhile teenagers who were stuck in the middle of it all."
Winter pitched Fanning on making the Napster story into a movie in 2002, months after the company’s assets had been acquired by the German media firm Bertelsmann. The program’s creator was game, and the two became friends. Soon, the director took the concept to MTV as a narrative feature. He had a history with the network dating back to the mid-1980s. MTV and its parent company, Viacom, bought the idea in the room.
This version of the movie never panned out, though. Winter spent two years researching and writing a script, which ultimately went into turnaround at Paramount. The director walked away and moved on to other projects instead, but something about the idea stuck with him. About three years ago, he started looking for another way to make the project work.
"I realized how little resolution had occurred since the Napster era, on any front—the global community and the democratization of culture was just as contentious and fractious an issue as before," he says. "Young people were being criminalized by preexisting interests, and unfairly for the most part. Torrenters aside, I think everyone who was downloading was being branded a criminal, and that’s not the case at all."
Since he’d already met the major figures on both the tech side and the record industry side while researching his script, Winter decided to go back and interview them for a documentary. It was the beginning of an investigative odyssey that would eventually span 150 hours of interview footage and a deep dive through 200 additional hours of archival footage.
In order to switch from a narrative feature to a documentary, Winter had to start over from scratch. "It was almost the opposite creative process," he says. "Rather than having to create a three-act narrative out of reality, I had to build a structure that was in some ways similar to my narrative, because the actual path of the story had a classical dramatic arc." He adds, "I felt it was incumbent upon me to get out of the way of facts and not really fasten a theme to it."
Although Winter thoroughly enjoyed The Social Network, which emphasized the personal turmoil that brewed between the main players at Facebook (a crew that includes (recently married) Napster cofounder Sean Parker), he wanted to go in a different direction. In his movie about revolutionary, world-changing tech, the emphasis would be mostly on the macro element—the historic global impact of this technology. He was also interested in clearing up misconceptions about what happened.
"The label side—they weren’t just asshole dinosaurs who didn’t want to get with the program. It was very difficult for them to embrace these changes, and Napster wasn’t exactly the most attractive company to get in business with," Winter says. "On the tech side, it still blows my fucking mind how people look at Napster as a piracy service. It was clear to me that what Fanning and Parker were trying to do was create a system that was more convenient than the preexisting system. Not free, but convenient."
Downloaded, which is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will see a VOD release on July 1, appears acutely interested in the gray area between intentions and consequences. With the rise of file sharing, Fanning and Parker got most of the world accustomed to the idea of another person looking into your files and borrowing liberally. It was a dramatic shift in the value of privacy that may have ultimately led to the culture of transparency we live in today—where people volunteer personal information on social media and where the NSA apparently quietly gathers it.
While we continue to adapt to the world as it’s changed since the dawn of Napster, Downloaded reminds us that the upheaval this technology raised continues nearly 15 years later.
"We could have spent all this time rebuilding an architecture that allows for curation and artist development and artist compensation. None of those things are in place, and it’s a big mess," Winter says. "That’s the tragedy of the movie: The Napster guys got crushed, the artists are getting screwed, the way forward is very muddied, and everybody is still penalizing everybody."
The good news, however, is that a lot of things appear to be changing that are going to make things even more convenient for music and movie lovers—and make the legal route even more inviting. A lot of artists now stream their albums for free before the release date. Broadband speeds for the average consumer are continuing to increase. The issue of digital sound quality keeps coming up. And perhaps over time, the basic, inherent goodness of the consumer will be assumed, and there will be something of a détente on both sides of the industry divide.
"Torrenting is a pain in the ass," Winter says. "It’s unstable; you’re not sure what you’re going to get. It’s kind of gross. Most of the people involved are gross. You’re basically descending into a dungeon of trolls. But it’s not the average consumer’s experience or even skill set. They want HBO, the networks, and the labels to say, Here’s some cool shit: It sounds great and looks great, and here’s where you can buy it."