Hot Docs 2013: My Thoughts on Downloaded

Downloaded I was in my late-teens when Napster and file sharing began to take off and I can vividly remember the huge controversy it generated.  After decades of buying music on vinyl and CDs, here was this software that allowed you to download high quality songs to your computer.  While downloading music and movies is commonplace today, it was almost unheard of back in late-1990s.  Directed by Alex Winter (aka Bill of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure fame) Downloaded tells the history of Napster and how it affected its two co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker.  The story of Napster begins with songs in the MP3 file format, which existed before file sharing, but were difficult to download.  Shawn Fanning started developing the Napster source code while he was in college and he eventually dropped out when he realized he couldn’t focus on anything else.  Once he successfully cracked the code, he partnered up with his friend Sean Parker to launch Napster.  The rest is history. Napster actually had a very humble beginning and was actually intended to be just as much a social network as a download service, many years before the launch of Facebook.  Of course, Fanning and Parker probably didn’t expect Napster to forever change the face of the record industry.  The 1980s and 1990s were one of the biggest booms in the music industry and the record companies were not ready for the rise of file sharing and downloading music.  As Chuck D of Public Enemy says at one point in the film, “the audience got to the technology before the music business” (and the business was not too happy). Anyone who has heard of Napster would undoubtedly also be familiar with the legal issues that followed, particularly the fact that Lars Ulrich of Metallica outright sued Napster and hand delivered boxes, containing the usernames of people who downloaded Metallica songs, to Napster’s offices.  While the record industry was definitely not happy that people were downloading songs for free, the film also makes the point that some artists, such as The Birds, never received any royalties for their music until after the MP3 era.  In fact, people were typically using Napster to sample music and still were buying albums that they liked.  It was only after the RIAA started suing Napster users that a generation of young people was created, who actively refuse to buy music. Throughout providing this history of Napster, the film features much tongue-in-cheek humour throughout.  This includes showing searches for Metallica songs in demonstrations of the Napster interface, as well as portraying some of the artists shown (such as the Spice Girls) is a less than flattering light.  Since Napster had such a sad ending, it is nice to look back at the original reaction to the service and laugh. As most people know, despite efforts to legitimize, Napster was shutdown in 2001.  It did nothing to stop the rise of the digital revolution and today iTunes, which was initially very similar it Napster, is not the world’s top music retailer.  Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker have both moved on to other projects, with Parker now coincidently involved with the music service Spotify. Overall, I thought that this was a quite entertaining and informative telling of Napster’s story.  While they did not know it at the time, Fanning and Parker truly changed the music industry with their little piece of computer software.8 | LIKED IT

Sean Kelly Author

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described über-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).