History is on the march, faster than ever. In a long ago artifact from 2001, John Stewart as a Comedy Central host reports, "Today, the courts agreed. It's the record companies who hold the patent on cheating musicians out of money." Alex Winter's new documentary Downloaded reconstructs the collapse of the music industry as consumers and high tech innovation blow out the foundation of the bloated behemoth. A little dorm room start up, Napster, caused a tsunami of trouble. Downloaded details the long forgotten story, a heroic and tragic tale of human drive, innovation and power.
Technology is moving so fast that few remember the miracle of the fax machine. Today, one can make a feature film on their smart phone and upload it to a film fest while waiting in line for a latte. I recall a record store with fondness. The most shocking aspect of Downloaded is the sense of history and how fast we are making it. And forgetting it. Downloaded tells a story that needs clarification and illumination. The documentary introduces us to a true hero, worthy of our admiration.
Shawn Fanning was a Massachusetts kid with a rocky family life. Smarter than those around him, he found solace and community in tech chat rooms on the newfangled Internet. There he met a like mind named Sean Parker. Fanning, a bit of a loner, found his passion and freedom in music. He saw it as a leveler, a source of commonality. To share music is to share yourself. And those two boys got to work, creating a music file-sharing phenomenon called Napster.
Instead of paying high prices for a compact disc at the record store, wouldn't it be cheaper and more convenient to buy music online? Why can't I buy one song instead of a whole album? The music industry never heard the questions. In the '80s, music profits soared. By the Nineties, the industry was fat, self-satisfied, omnipotent and callous to the customer. It was wholly unaware of its impending destruction. Napster was blooming and the industry ignored the rumble of the consumer shift.
One of the many themes in Downloaded is musician royalties. There really weren't any. Music companies held the power and the purse strings. In a scene before a Senate committee Roger McGuinn of the Byrds explains how successful they were and how little they got paid. It made my heart break. Who earns the money? Who gets to keep it? Napster created a new possibility, the idea of an alternative system of reward.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Downloaded is the narrative of policy making. Director Winter details the many opinions and positions that Napster engendered. Everyone with a place at the establishment table was banging their fist. The courts moved quickly. Legislation was developed. It is in these sections that Winter shows his chops. Look closely. He is very clever and very quiet as he throws us a few zingers on power, policy making and political self-interest. Today, as we buy music at iTunes and spin through Pandora, Downloaded shows us how our new harmony came to be.
Innovative of many things, Napster created a new method of distributing musical entertainment. Only a few saw it coming. Snoring loudly, the music industry woke in a panic. Their bed was on fire. And boy, were they mad!
Downloaded is Shawn Fanning's story. He knew that he had created a platform that would grow into something else. He was aware of piracy. He danced in the shadows of file sharing and its legality. A music lover, Fanning believed an artist should get paid. Cowed and cornered, the music industry stonewalled any discussion of royalties with Napster. Taking a hard line, they would not negotiate with terrorists. Napster must go down.
Sean Parker took a spear for the team, but as we find out in David Fincher's The Social Network, he came out OK. The diamond of Downloaded is Shawn Fanning. He was a technology innovator. He was smart enough to keep his source code private. He has a pure heart. He fought the battle well and suffered for his victories. Facebook may have juiced our culture but Mark Zuckerberg is no role model. Fanning is. I now consider him an American hero. Downloaded clarifies his story.
Director Alex Winter is a curiosity. Most know him as the blonde half of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure or the curly haired vampire of The Lost Boys. He is an actor who has been far busier behind the camera. He is a King of the Fringe. Fever and Freaked, two of his greatest directorial successes have received heavyweight praise, awards and a cult following, but no commercial success or general awareness. Winter's career seems plagued by studio mishaps, silly executive decision-making and bad timing.
The NYU film grad has earned his chops with a busy resume on stage and on all sides of the camera. Winter writes, directs, shoots and edits. His strong and sure skill set is evident in Downloaded. The documentary relives history in a very thorough and engaging way. The cast of characters are quickly fleshed. Heroes, villains and everyone in between are well drawn. This dramatic true tale could have been penned by Shakespeare. Winter is not flashy with the material. As director, his hand is subtle. He lets the compelling story tell itself.
As a well-read citizen, I thought I knew the Napster story. Turns out, I did not. Therefore, I am grateful for this doc. The scale is epic. If you love your "Angry Birds", you may want to learn what helped give birth to the game. Downloaded is a human story with relevance as an American business journal. It shares a value system. We observe creators. We see those with vision and others who are blinded by their own greed.
The dust has not settled from our digital earthquake. Music has found a new foothold. Journalism and the print media are still stunned, unsure in their calamity. Film and TV are the next industries to go down. To prove the point, Downloaded will be available on demand over the Internet beginning July 1. Should you decide to go Old School, this shrewd documentary will play in select cities over the summer.