Film Review – Downloaded
Anyone here still remember Napster? It’s boggling to realize that we are now more than a decade removed from the hoopla caused by two teenagers who just wanted to create an online community for sharing music. Little did Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker know that what they were doing would change the way people would consume media (perhaps forever). There were similar websites and file sharing applications that sprang up years before Napster did, but none imprinted itself on the mainstream consciousness in the same enormous fashion. Because of what Fanning, Parker, and the people of their generation accomplished, instant connection is now the expected standard. Netflix, iTunes, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter were all influenced in one way or another by it. By creating a program that connected people from around the world, they essentially jumpstarted the social media framework as we know it today.
Alex Winter’s documentary Downloaded brings us back to the good old times of the late ’90s and early 2000s, when Napster was created and became an almost instant sensation. Some of you may remember this story vividly. Some of the images and archival footage have become all too familiar: Fanning with his t-shirts and baseball caps, Lars Ulrich (of Metallica) speaking out against the service, MTV interviewing any and every musical artist about it, the court cases that soon followed, etc. A lot of the material Winter presents I’m sure many people already know. Narrated entirely through personal testimony, we’re given a rounded perspective of the case, both by the people that supported Napster and the representatives of the music industry that fought against it.
The fight between the music industry (represented by RIAA—Recording Industry Association of America) and the online community has always been a strange one. It’s completely understandable that artists want to protect their intellectual property and punish those that commit copyright infringement, but by doing so they alienate the fans that want access to their music. During one scene, Sean Parker points out that the artists fighting against Napster (mostly from the rock and rap genres) more often than not make music about being a “rebel” and “fighting the establishment.” The fact that they then turn around and sue Napster goes against the persona that paved their careers. It doesn’t look very “metal” when Lars Ulrich shows up to the doorstep of Napster with boxes full of printed names of online users he wishes to block from sharing music.
If there is one thing to take away from all this, it’s that people must adapt to the changing times if they wish to stay relevant. If Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker never created Napster, someone would have made something similar eventually. There’s no stopping advancement, and if people don’t follow in step, they’ll get old very quickly. Now that we are many years removed from these events, it’s fascinating to see how the record companies fought so adamantly against online file sharing. Some were interested in seeing where it would go, but the ones featured stood firmly against it. This is one of the few times where popular culture set a trend the music industry was not ready for, and it’s clear they didn’t know what to do. It’s that inability to create a new business model that caused much of the trouble, and no matter how many lawsuits the RIAA would win, it couldn’t prevent the “digital revolution” from happening. From records to cassettes, and then to CDs, what Fanning and Parker participated in was all a part of natural progression.
Which had me thinking: how does this affect us in today’s society? Instant access to music has now become the norm. The innovation by Steve Jobs and the iTunes store helped put hundreds (if not thousands) of songs into people’s phones and iPods. Napster has pretty much become a lost entity in time. Well, today a similar situation has developed in the home video realm. Online and instant streaming has grown by leaps and bounds, endangering the DVD and Blu-ray industry. Video stores are dwindling in the same fashion record stores did at the turn of the century. It’ll be interesting to see how this story continues, and whether or not it’ll chart a similar path to what the music industry went through.
Downloaded feels like a time capsule for this particular period. Instead of delving into the personalities of these characters, it traces step by step the entire storyline from beginning to end. This is insightful for those interested in learning about it, but we never get a full grasp of who these people are. The film works more like a procedural than a character study. We don’t learn much about Fanning, Parker, and their associates, other than that they were a bunch of computer geeks who ran with a great idea. Little is revealed about their lives today, except for the new business ventures they are now involved with. As a result, we have a documentary about very successful entrepreneurs reminiscing about that first great project they wish they were still involved with.