I remember when I first discovered Napster as a teenager. Being from a small town, where the local music store specialised in Top 40 artists and Country & Western, it was the greatest thing I had ever used. I had an entire world of music at my fingertips. Not only could I find and download my favourite artists but I could also socialise and discover new music from all over the world.
For music fans during the ‘90s, Napster changed the way we sourced, shared and discovered music. Alex Winter’s documentary explains how Napster went from a simple idea to a global empire, and eventually came crashing down because of pressure from the industry’s bigwigs.
Winter, who most will know as Bill Preston from the Bill & Ted movies, does a fantastic job of taking the viewer through Napster’s short history. He is obviously passionate about music and even though his personal views shine through at times, he approaches the subject of piracy in a very subtle way.
The film’s initial focus is on creator Shawn Fanning. Fanning quit school and sought advice from like-minded individuals over the Internet to help him develop the idea. These peers, including Sean Parker, would later become his business partners.
Once a user-friendly platform was created, it was only a matter of time before word began to spread and Napster became the biggest thing to happen to the music industry since compact discs. But with great power came many legal responsibilities.
The first band to protest Napster was Metallica, who despite all their rage were treating the common user like a rat in a cage, which in this case represents the stronghold of the music industry.
The second came from Dr. Dre, who viewed the whole concept of file sharing as bullshit. I find this one the most baffling, as Dre made a career out of sampling 30 second beats from other songs, and I doubt that any of those artists have seen a dollar from his earnings.
Both Metallica and Dr. Dre sued the Napster team and won, earning themselves $1m in the process – and thanks to their efforts, Napster shut down and everyone went back to buying CDs… NOT!
The fact that Napster lost the court case was sad for the music world, but it didn’t really slow things down. People just found new ways to share and steal music via the Internet, and apart from both artists losing respect from most of their fan base, things kept moving.
At the time, one of the Napster engineers said that while they won a few battles after that, the war was over. In fact it was the opposite. The music industry may have won the battle over Napster, but the war against public file sharing is still going on.
The film is jam-packed with famous faces, all with differing opinions on Napster’s place in the music industry. Artists like Henry Rollins, Mike D and even Fred Durst were advocating the new wave of file sharing, while Trent Reznor, Eminem and Snoop Dogg seemed deeply opposed. Then there was the Spice Girls, who said “We’re not really into computers… we’re not allowed to comment”.
One criticism would be the film’s soundtrack, composed by DJ Spooky (who also appears in interviews). It is largely comprised of computer-generated sound effects that often compromise the strength of the interviews. For a film about the music industry, I was expecting a kick-arse soundtrack.
And while Winter touched on it with the band Dispatch, it would have been effective to look at some more careers that were launched as part of the Internet revolution. Artists like Lily Allen, Gotye and even Justin Bieber were all discovered over social media – and this would have been another great argument as to why the Internet and user-driven music platforms are driving the music industry, not attacking it.
That being said, this is still an impressive effort and keeps you hooked from beginning to end.
This doco isn’t just for people who used Napster back in the day, but for anyone who now uses iTunes, MySpace, Facebook, Spotify and even YouTube to access and share new music – all these platforms evolved from one idea, and the idea was Napster
The final words from Fanning sum it up perfectly, when he explained that because people are still moving forward with the concept that Napster created, it was all worthwhile. Amen.
Downloaded screened as part of the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival.