If you were lucky enough to have regular access to a computer and a reliable internet connection in the late ’90s/early ’00s, you were undoubtedly asked by those also online, “Are you on Napster?” In today’s world where music can be streamed and downloaded through an endless array of legal options, it’s easy to forget what a monumental groundshift Napster represented. The common shorthand narrative is that Napster arrived and the music industry imploded, but the service was essentially around for two years and in that time, its influence on how audiences obtained, shared and enjoyed music was perhaps even more profound. And it’s that element that director Alex Winter (yes, Bill from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure“) gets right in his documentary “Downloaded,” a comprehensive look at the rise and fall of the music service, that unfortunately may be a bit too cozy with the men who started it.
Certainly, it’s a pretty good coup that Winter landed the founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning to talk in detail about the company and Silicon Valley sensation that they started, but the director gives a bit too much leeway to the pair in framing the story. In their eyes, Napster started as an innocent project to simplify finding music online, and that their service just made it easier for people to engage in what we now call filesharing. As they point out, in the years before Napster, the internet was a place where communication between users was limited, and the idea of sharing files back and forth nearly non-existent. So this concept of opening your hard drive to essentially millions of strangers was somewhat mindblowing. In many ways, it completely turned around the idea of what the internet could be. But when it comes to talking about the legality of the activities Napster enabled, Parker and Fanning do a good job of dancing around the issue.
Even over a decade since Napster was shut down, and perhaps thanks to the rosy glow of hindsight, the two tend to lean on their technological accomplishments, while the fact that copyrighted material was openly copied, traded and downloaded is more like an unfortunate offspring of what they were doing. But the reality is, that was the whole point. Napster basically put your entire local record store online with access no more than a mouse-click away, and then some. And while Parker and Fanning timidly argue the sampling-music-leads-to-buying-music argument, both they and the director miss a larger point. Napster made more music available than the industry itself was, with numerous out-of-print, import and rare recordings available when often music stores didn’t have them (or had them only at an outrageously marked up price). And some have argued that thanks to the early days of mp3s and sharing, many vintage recordings were digitized and disseminated for the first time. Music fans basically made it clear that the industry’s stranglehold on their own catalogs, and their focus on a limited slate of music which they pushed out each quarter, didn’t match the desires of the public.
But all of this got drowned out in the noise of copyrighted works being openly shared, some would stay stolen. Parker and Fanning take the position that they merely provided a tool, and they were not responsible for how it was used. And while they claimed they wanted to work with the music industry, their minimal efforts to curb the activity that caused CEOs to stay up at night didn’t demonstrate that good faith. And with major tunes by acts like Metallica and Madonna leaking onto Napster early, any constructive conversations about the future of the internet, intellectual property and other web issues took a far backseat to the company’s alleged crimes. And while “Downloaded” presents guys like Lars Ulrich and Dr. Dre as squares who went after their own fans if not directly, then ideologically, Winter fails to address the simple fact that in the ’90s, it was record sales that made careers. Your placement on the Billboard chart determined if you played theaters, arenas…or not at all, and Napster was a serious fork in the wheel to musicians who were trying to make it within the system.
Now, was that system corrupt, saddled with old CEOs comfortable with the way things had gone for decades? Certainly. Testimony in front of Congress by The Byrds member Roger McGuinn, who shared the simple fact he was routinely underpaid by the record companies for his share of the royalties, is one of many, many similar stories. And while the moral argument of filesharing is best left to another day, it’s clear that Napster kicked down the door and forced everyone — label heads, A&R, artists, fans — to start having the kind of conversations about music, art and commerce that should’ve been had ages ago. No one could afford to ignore the internet anymore.
But you won’t find much of that talk in “Downloaded,” and it’s unfortunate. While Winter details the days of Napster perhaps better than anyone has to date, with invaluable insight from many players including employees at Napster, artists and investors, all backed by a wealth of archival footage, the movie is really just a feature length “60 Minutes” segment. Winter fails to ask Parker and Fanning any hard questions, and instead, they either contextualize or set up the narrative of the movie. There are few bad words about them and overall few reasonable dissenting voices to offer what this doc sorely needs — perspective. Caught up in tracking the day-to-day growth and eventual collapse, “Downloaded” often misses bigger picture viewpoints, and mostly sticks with the standard narrative about Napster we all know (though with a bit more behind-the-scenes detail).
But there is value in its flawed but focused approach, especially for those who were too young to remember Napster. Teens might be interested to know where iTunes initially got their inspiration from, and how years ago, it would sometimes take hours to download a single song. Winter’s detail oriented approach does at least give the best recounting of Napster you’re going to get, even if it’s a biased one. And while some contrasting opinions would’ve been appreciated, “Downloaded” is still worth a click. [B-]
“Downloaded” is now available on VOD and is currently playing in limited release.