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‘Downloaded’ charts the rise and fall of the Napster revolution

Downloaded Napster Movie
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There was a point in the late ’90s, just as the world prepared to welcome the new millenium, when it could be argued that Napster was as ubiquitous as Twitter is today. Everyone with a computer seemed to be using it, and the momentum behind the revolutionary file-sharing service seemed unstoppable as it swept up the entire music industry and forced us all – from the simple consumer to the presidents of record labels – to re-evaluate the way music is bought, sold, consumed, and, most importantly, shared.

And then the wheels fell off.

Alex Winter, director
Alex Winter, director Image used with permission by copyright holder

Proving to be the immovable object to Napster’s unstoppable force, massive litigation slowed the file-sharing service’s growth to a crawl in March 2001 when record companies won an injunction forcing it to limit the sharing of copyrighted material. Just a few months later, Napster finally collapsed under the weight of the various copyright-infringement lawsuits it had been fighting, and it eventually shut down in July 2001.

As one of the first peer-to-peer file-sharing services, Napster’s rise and fall were equally meteoric, growing from a simple service that allowed a small group of computer programmers to share their digital music files with each other to a worldwide phenomenon with an estimated 80 million users at its peak – all over the course of just two frantic, highly publicized years. Its legacy, however, would be the dramatic shift in perspective it brought to the media industry regarding digital music, making it one of the earliest (and most prominent) shots fired in the digital revolution.

In his new documentary, Downloaded, filmmaker (and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure co-star) Alex Winter chronicles the early days of Napster through its unprecedented growth, legal battles, and final days with a mix of archival footage and interviews conducted over a ten-year span between 2002 and 2012. From the original Napster team and developers to the record company execs, lawyers, and musicians who found themselves caught up in the Napster storm, the interviews featured in the film offer a fascinating perspective on a cultural revolution that seemed to take everyone – including the Napster creators themselves – by surprise.

Downloaded is available now digitally via iTunes, Xbox, PlayStation Network, Amazon, and various other digital and Video On-Demand services. It’s currently opening in select screenings around the country, and will air on VH1 in 2014. Digital Trends spoke with Winter about the film and why the story of Napster is still so important today.

Sean Fanning and Sean Parker
Napster founders Sean Parker and Sean Fanning Image used with permission by copyright holder

As someone who jumped on the Napster train early and followed some of these developments closely, this film was a trip down memory lane for me. How about you? Where does your connection with Napster come from?

I was really interested in emerging technologies going all the way back to the late ’80s. I do a lot of effects-driven work in commercials and advertising and movies and stuff, so I’ve always been pretty technically versed. The Internet started creeping into my business as early as the late ’80s, and by the early ’90s we were using it for all kinds of things. And then I got kind of hooked on BBS and newsgroups and what eventually became this global community. Nothing really moved with any speed for a really long time, though, and then suddenly – almost overnight – Napster changed all that.

Yeah, I remember it seemed to come out of nowhere, and suddenly everything else I was doing seemed to be moving a lot slower.

You said you experienced it, and I’m not sure to what degree you used Napster, but it was a huge change from anything we’d been dealing with up until then. Suddenly we had a global community that moved really, really fast. You could meet people all over the world and the Internet was suddenly being used to connect millions of people at the same time, all together at once. That just didn’t exist before to that degree.

“The thing is, it was just too early to tell a story about the beginning of the digital revolution during the beginning of the digital revolution. In many ways, the Napster story is still too early to tell.”

It was definitely a weird feeling to have the world opened up like that.

Yeah, “weird” is a good way of putting it, frankly. It just felt kind of weird. Like, what the hell is this?


So for all of us it was an extraordinary moment in time – one that we knew was going to change a lot of stuff. And it did. So I kind of sought out the Napster guys back in 2002 and was very eager to find a way to tell their story. It just took a very long time to get that made.

Why did it take so long to make this movie? And what is it that makes this the right time for it?

Well, I wrote it originally as a narrative. It was written as a dramatic movie originally at a major studio and then it went into turnaround at that studio. So I just ended up walking away from it. The thing is, it was just too early to tell a story about the beginning of the digital revolution during the beginning of the digital revolution. In many ways, the Napster story is still too early to tell. Many of the significant issues around the Napster debate are still unresolved.

I know this film has been 10 years in the making, but how long did it take you to get all of the interviews you conducted for the film? They seem to cover a pretty long period of time.

It didn’t take too long. Once I decided to make it as a documentary, it took almost no time at all. And it just seemed very right at that point. By then, people were very aware of downloading. The iTunes store had legitimized the notion of people paying for content, which was initially a battle cry from the other side for a long time, that no one will ever pay for anything again. But iTunes proved that wasn’t going to be the case, and that people weren’t necessarily all criminals – they just wanted convenience and would pay for that convenience. So the industry had settled down and they were ready to accept a story about it now.

Alex Winter, Sean Fanning, Sean Parker
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Given how contentious this topic was back then – and still is now to a degree – how did music companies respond to you pursuing all of this and wanting to make a movie about Napster?

Most of the people on the record industry side felt like they never had their story told, so I think they were kind of eager on a certain level to explain the gray area. They knew my movie was about the gray, and that I wasn’t interested in a black-and-white story. I think that was something that they realized and why they were open to helping that story get told.

Did it seem as if any of these record company execs wished they had done something differently back in the day? I’ve always felt like there was a great opportunity they missed out on with Napster, and I got the impression that some of the execs you interviewed were leaning that way, too.

I think the point the record labels were making with me was that they felt there were many circumstances that caused Napster to be something they couldn’t contend with, and that there were many circumstances that caused the record industry to lose as much revenue as it did that were not specific to downloading. I think those were issues that most people were not aware of, and that some of the people I interviewed were eager to make clear in the movie.

“This was a big movement that was hustling along at its own pace and these guys played a very big part in that.”

What about Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker? It seemed like there were a few moments in the documentary when they realized things might have gone very differently if they made a few different choices.

I think it’s possible, but I think they have a very sensible understanding of everything, and that frankly, it was what it was. [Napster] was ahead of its time and there was no really no way anyone was going to do business with them. That was just the sad reality of it.

I was really struck by one of the later interviews with Sean Parker, in which he says they really did believe that the record labels would eventually work with them – that they’d have to work with them because of how big Napster had become. And then everything happened the way it did. The film does a nice job of showing how they were carried along in this wave, and battered against the rocks at times, but learned from it. Did it feel like they changed a lot over the 10 years you were making this film?

The important thing about a revolution is that it’s bigger than you. And while Fanning and Parker may look back on it and think, “Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten involved at all if I knew what a headache it was going to be,” the fact is that they were motivated and inspired enough to seize on a vision they had that was very revolutionary and disruptive, and they had the ability to actually code and implement that vision. That becomes a force of nature that, especially at that age, you don’t really argue with. To look back years later is almost irrelevant in terms of the revolution itself, because it did happen and they did do it. I don’t think they look back on it and think this messed up the world or “I wish we’d never done this.” Change doesn’t occur that way. It takes courage and a certain amount of madness and recklessness to enact change. It just does. That’s not to say every change is a good change, but what these guys brought about is something that consumers and a lot of people in various technology sectors and entertainment sectors and the government are implementing now in various ways. We’ve gotten into much wider uses of the internet now for transparency and the flow of information. This was a big movement that was hustling along at its own pace and these guys played a very big part in that.

Napster Interface
Image used with permission by copyright holder

So what about you? What did you learn while making the film?

Well, I knew a lot about the story and I’d done an enormous amount of research but one of the primary things I learned of was the level of anger that still exists all these years later. We have all these completely legitimate systems for moving information and media around online and consumers have clearly stated how they want to consume their content and their information – and the level of privacy and security with which they want to do so – but there’s so much obstruction and litigation and resistance to all of these changes. And the changes aren’t even in-process anymore. They already happened. We’re living in the aftermath of this stuff, but unfortunately we’re not living in a very practical reality because a lot of the stuff still hasn’t monetized, and there’s still a lot of resistance to these systems. That was shocking to me when I got down and dirty with a lot of the people involved. To see the level of rage that still exists for these systems, and also to see the level of technological misunderstanding … People just don’t understand these technologies because they don’t really want to. They just want them to go away. But they’re not going to go away.

“Unlike Pirate Bay and some of these brazenly piracy-oriented services, Napster was … two guys who very much wanted to be part of the music industry.”

As a person in the business of creating content, did you ever feel a little conflicted about making a film about Napster? After all, they were sort of the poster child for the copyright-infringement debate way back when.

Not at all, because I never viewed Napster as a piracy service and never used it as a piracy service. Unlike Pirate Bay and some of these brazenly piracy-oriented services, Napster was a failed business. Napster was two guys who very much wanted to be part of the music industry. They were very young and very naive from a business standpoint, but that’s what they wanted. They talked about how they wanted to do a deal with the labels, and they knew they couldn’t survive if they didn’t do a deal with the labels. That was the story. I never had any reservations about telling that story. It’s a story about a failed business. That’s the Napster story. Sure, there are people who may not agree with that, but that’s my perspective on it. And I felt like I had an obligation to tell the story as I saw it.

Well, let’s finish with the obligatory question about Bill & Ted. Are we any closer to seeing you and Keanu reprise those roles?

Hopefully, yeah!

So what’s the latest update? And be honest with me: Is this a role you’re even interested in stepping back into with everything else you have going on these days?

Yeah, absolutely. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out a good way into this story and we believe we’ve got one now. Because I believe we’ve got a great way into this story, it would be fun to make it. Me and Keanu and the writers are working on getting the story into shape, getting it financed, and getting it made. So, fingers crossed. We would like to see it get done.

Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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