In the same way that the newspaper industry at first shunned and then ran in fear of the internet, only coming to the digital table at the last possible moment — perhaps just in time to adapt properly and save its own neck — the record industry went apeshit when Napster dropped. A new software had been released and was starting to cut into profits, and major music execs figured Napster for a massive product thief and began shrieking piracy. They saw something they didn’t understand, something that seemed to threaten the very nature of their massively lucrative (and undeniably exploitative) music-selling business model, and they ran to the courts crying anti-capitalism. Napster was nixed. In the end, of course, this wasn’t nearly enough to stop the eventual dominance of media file-sharing.
Alex Winter’s Downloaded is, somewhat ironically, a documentary made for the music channel VH1, one of the greatest purveyors of the silly corporate music whose owners had a problem with Napster. To make matters weirder, Winter’s greatest claim to fame happens to be the role of Bill S. Preston, Esq., alongside Keanu Reeves’ Ted Logan, in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. A cheesy actor making a quickie doc for a programming block on a cable music channel? Couldn’t possibly turn out well. Yet despite these oddities, Downloaded is a compelling and relevant film. It’s easily the best of its kind — i.e., “behind the music”-style music channel filler — that I’ve seen.
Winter’s points of access to the story of Napster are essential. He gets the full attention of Shawn Fanning, the wunderkind hacker from a poor Massachusetts home who was the brains behind Napster’s inception. Fanning hasn’t been able to score a major success since Napster’s forced collapse, and, though this is technically a VH1 “rockumentary,” and thus an ostensibly superficial look at recent pop history, Winter allows the sadness, the grin-and-bear-it attitude, of the world-weary, working-class Fanning to come across. Fanning is still a moderate success 10 years after Napster, and he’s more than willing to tell his full side of the story of the invention that changed music. But he’s also one of the early casualties of the swift vicissitudes of the burgeoning internet, and through the requisite flash and pizzazz that you can expect from a VH1 product, Winter allows him to tell his story.
Winter gets equal access to Sean Parker, the hacker who went into business with Fanning, shepherded Napster along, was let go for being a loudmouth, and then became a billionaire when he hooked up with Mark Zuckerberg. They’re a great dichotomy, two outcomes of the late-90s tech boom that made some guys into billionaires and crushed others’ dreams. Fanning — who never turned into the Zuckerberg he may have been — is sad-eyed but never less than sober and honest. Parker, sharp-tongued and smirking in a shiny suit, every inch the young billionaire, seems to represent the success Fanning never achieved. The disparity is clear, but Winter has so much story to tell that he winds up plowing through a greater exploration of the way Napster fame molded Fanning and Parker into men.
Dr. Dre and (more loud-mouthed) Metallica’s Lars Ulrich were, you’ll remember, the most vocal opponents of music-sharing software. Winter posits the musicians as the de facto villains of this doc, the anti-Shawn Fannings, the money-loving famous faces of an industry bullishly resisting inevitable change. There are a handful of behind-the-scenes types — music execs and representatives from the Recording Industry Association of America — who pay lip service to their early victory against Napster, clearly attempting to posit themselves as martyrs in the struggle against piracy. Winter captures the lingering strains of their corporate hubris, and you can’t miss how none of them are willing to admit the recording companies’ resounding defeat, albeit at the hands of Napster’s successors.
Downloaded is, if anything, an ably-told rundown of the death of overpriced music. A few of the big boys, like Dre and Ulrich, may have lost a few million in the process, and Outkast’s Big Boi may have rapped, in a 2010 album that (surprise surprise) sold very well online, that iTunes came out and made the CD obsolete, but this major industry has undeniably shifted to a music-selling model a lot like the one that a 19-year-old tech nerd once envisioned. If that nerd is now older and wiser and still not seeing the spoils of his dreams, at least he’s now got a pretty good doc to be remembered by.