"I just felt like this was one of the great moments in human history, and I still do. But, of course, great moments in human history usually have an opposition that is exactly proportional to their greatness.” - John Perry Barlow (Songwriter, Essayist, Internet Activist) - DOWNLOADED (2013)
A transcendent observation and eloquent summation of not only the rise and fall of Napster, but a shining exemplification of the heartbeat driving DOWNLOADED - writer/director Alex Winter’s bold journey through the inception of the hyper-controversial, dubiously legal, now extinct file sharing service...and a compelling examination of the socio-economic slipstream it left left behind.
Now streaming for free via AOL - a move whose symbolic and ironic nature can not be overstated - DOWNLOADED is a breezy, entertaining, and sometimes touching undertaking which smartly (and fairly) presents its subject matter not as a “good guys” / “bad guys,” “stick it to to the man” / “destroy the pirates” saga. Instead, we partake of cogent insights from an assemblage of very smart, well-spoken, non-contentious, and surprisingly likeable individuals on both sides of the issues, all of whom collided with each other at a fateful technological crossroads - the “sudden” ability of computer users to connect directly to other computer users via the Internet and share music files. The slipstream of this singularity brought forth profound ramifications to business models and social interactions - issues which persist today in the form of controversies surrounding, for example, Torrent sites like The Pirate Bay, and even legally vetted sites like iTunes. The film, quite wisely, understands that...while the issues and strife brought about by Napster’s formation and dispansion were predominantly business driven...the symptoms of its outbreak actually point to a broader and infinitely farther reaching consideration than the almighty dollar. Like: the increasing interconnectivity of people, and how our ability to access and share many kinds of information instantaneously, across multiple platforms, and though multiple devices, have already changed how our society interacts with both itself and the world. The now, clearly, shapes where where we can go from here. DOWNLOADED is certainly about the wild and wooly Napster era - but also treats Napster as part of a more significant, and hugely relevant, trend and whole.
“I can remember how taken the Google guys were with the Napster guys. I can remember thinking to myself, ‘Good luck with that search engine thing. I hope that works out for you.’ " Chris Phenner - Director of Business Development - Napster - 2000-2001 DOWNLOADED
Winter deftly avoids overly judging the “rights” and “wrongs” or file sharing here - instead focusing much of his picture’s scrutiny on staunch and sometimes unimaginative business/industry mindsets which both led to a demand for a mechanism like Napster, and ultimately squashed it. We’re exposed to a behemoth music industry which more or less paralyzed itself when confronted by unknown considerations and ‘out of the box’ business models and opportunities - and responded in a way which was not necessarily too slow...but rather... too reticent to evolve and adapt. This propensity is imminently relevant to how the film, television, and music industries are responding (or failing to respond) to current technological trends (iTunes, various streaming entities) today. Napster’s specific tale may be over - but in a number of regards, its challenge and legacy continue - we’re living it to this day whenever and wherever technology interacts with corporate entertainment entities via Torrenting, iTunes, and even sites like AICN. How do they interact and why? Who wins in the end? Money driven establishment -vs- new ways of thinking. A classic tale of the human condition, and an approach/retreat smartly illustrated by DOWNLOADED. NOTE: I’m not inferring that AICN appears in the film - it does not. I’m just using us an example of electronic media confronting a monolithic establishment in both positive and negative ways.
Team Metallica delivers a list of Napster users who downloaded Metallica music via Napster to Napster's offices. Where, strnagely, Napster and Metallica supporters were standing side by side.
Archival and new interviews spanning a considerable period of time unfold this tale, with insight from Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning (Napster Co-Founders), Jordan Ritter (Chief Server Architect for Napster), Ali Aydar (Senior Director of Technology for Napster - “We’re going to, like, download stuff from each other? Nobody’s gpoing to open up their harddrive like that - nobody’s going to allow their bandwidth to be used...no one is going to share a .mp3. I was wrong...I was so wrong.”), Ricki Seidman (Strategy Manager Clinton/Gore ’92, Obama/Biden ’08, MySpace, Google, Napster), Hank Barry (Napster CEO 2000/2001), Coleen Verrier (Shawn Faning’s mom), Ray Verrier Jr. (Shawn Faning’s brother), Ian Rogers (CEO, Topspin Media), Aaron Guadamuz (Mac QA Engineer for Napster), Lawrence Lessig (Safra Foundation Center for Ethics - Harvard University), Hilary Rosen (Former President & CEO - Reocrding Industry Association of America), Don Ienner (Former CEO - Sony Music Group US), Noel Gallagher (Musician), Seymour Stein (President, Sire Records), Record Store Rob (Bleecker Street Records - NYC), Chris Blackwell (Founder, Island Records), Henry Rollins (Musician), DJ Spooky (Musician - and DOWNLOADED's composer), Brandon Barber (Director of Product Management, Napster 1999-2002), Chris Phenner (Director of Business Development - Napster - 2000-2001), Ron Conway (Angel Investor Google, Facebook, PayPal, Napster), Cary Sherman (Chairman/CEO Recording Industry Association of America), Chuck D (Musician), Dispatch (Musicians), Tom Middelhoff (Former CEO - Bertelsmann Media Group), Mike D (a Beastie Boy), Lars Ulrich (Metallica).
Gene Kan (Chief Programmer Gnutella/Founder InfraSearch) also appears - in one of the film's more humorous moments. Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kan became a tad amped, garnering humorous reactions from all sides of the file sharing/music rights euqation present at the hearings (Lars Ulrich, Hilary Rosen (Former President & CEO - Reocrding Industry Association of America), Shawn Fanning, and others). Here's a clip, courtesy of VH1 Rock Docs...
That’s a lot of talking heads, to be sure. And, I left a few out (no disrespect intended). But, as stated above, what these players are discussing is imminently germane to today’s world and the technological future we now confront - the film is far more relevant and examines vastly more implications than many might expect. More than illuminating the history of a funky and defunct Internet era, DOWNLOADED is about who we’ve become since 1994 - how we got here, and...by force of concept alone...compels us to ponder where we might be going, and why.
This all sounds rather heady - and the ideas and concerned pinged by the film are challenging and nebulous to be sure. There’s a lot to take in here - even after two viewings of the film I have yet to catch all of its nuance. To his credit, Winter pushes proceedings along at a steady and agreeable clip - no single idea bogs down the whole here, and the interviewees are invariably interesting, approachable, and adept at distilling complex technical, moral, and ethical issues into terms which can be easily understood and quickly ingested. So much so that one of the movie’s most effective - and affecting moments - might even go unrecognized: a segment in which Napster Co-founder Shawn Fanning describes the struggles of his younger years. A time in which he felt “lost” and displaced” and didn’t have much money. He discusses his discovery of online communities where “...your reputation was your own. It was not about how well off your family was or how you dressed or how well you spoke - or body language. It was about the merit of what you were saying.” This desire for connection...this journey towards wanting to be part of a likeminded community... very much fueled his development of Napster. And I suspect that anyone who texts with friends, shares pictures or sound clips, or responds to posts on Facebook...or participates in Talkbacks...may understand this simple, primal desire and impetus. At the end of the day, taking this one fleeting moment to heart, Napster...and all the frenzy, furor, controversy, and evolution it brought with it...appears to have come about out of one man’s fundamental need to stretch beyond his loneliness. A poignant notion.
When considering this alongside the film’s broader social explorations and implications, DOWNLOADED may be best characterized by a line from MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME. “This ain’t one body’s Tell. It’s the Tel of us all.” And it’s a story to which we should listen...and mull very carefully. Because it ain’t over yet - not by a long shot. And socially, and economically, there’s a great deal at stake for all concerned.
DOWNLOADED can now be seen free and now HERE at AOL.
Seen in the film but not a clip directly from the film, hosts Bryant Gumble and Katie Couric wonder what the Internet is in a 1994 Today Show segment (NBC).
- Google +