It was the shot heard around the world, or would have been had it been an actual shot and not a bunch of 1s and 0s that changed forever how people consume music: Napster, the peer-to-peer file-sharing app that allowed users to share music over the internet. Alex Winter’s Downloaded spins the tale of this short-lived tech pioneer that revolutionized the music business and wreaked havoc on a record industry hopelessly out of touch with new technology. Napster itself would be destroyed by founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker’s youthful ignorance – or contempt of – copyright laws, as the company faced legal action not just from record companies, but also from artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre.
Winter’s documentary is a thorough dissection of a phenomenon, a kind of Rashomon, if you will, that gives voice to a chorus of differing viewpoints. Among those interviewed are Fanning, Parker and others involved with Napster; record industry executives, including Hilary Rosen, one-time head of the Recording Industry Association of America, former Sony Music head Don Ienner. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell and Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein; and musicians, including Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, The Beastie Boys’ Mike D, Henry Rollins and DJ Spooky (who also composed the film’s music). Other precincts heard from include Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder (and Grateful Dead lyricist) JP Barlow and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig.
Downloaded is a history lesson as well as a valuable case study on how not to conduct business in either the virtual or real worlds, as mistakes made by both Napster and the record industry had ugly consequences. From a musician’s viewpoint, the more cynical will note that what Winter’s film really emphasizes is how the more things change, the more things stay the same: Whether a record label or Napster (or newer services, such as Spotify, if Thom Yorke and other musicians’ complaints about paltry payments are accurate), good luck collecting those royalties. – Pam Grady
Downloaded director Alex Winter will be in attendance Saturday night, Aug 3 at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater. For more info, visit roxie.com.