Hot Docs Review: 'Downloaded'

(USA, 107 min.)
Dir. Alex Winter
Programme: Rule Breakers and Innovators (International Premiere)
Shawn Fanning. (Photo credit: Anghel Decca)
Oh, Napster. I thought the file sharing program was one of the greatest inventions of all time back when it came out in the late 1990s. I had dial-up internet (the red dot) and could download any song I wanted in less than an hour. Then came DC++ and I could have any movie playing on my screen in less time, which proved a godsend when I was living in Kingston and unable to see many Oscar contenders at local theatres. Films like Down to the Bone weren’t even available in Canadian theatres, so it was exciting to have a rare leg up on the Oscar race. After a few months of downloading went by, plus six seasons of The Sopranos and a few dozen movies, Paramount sent me a ‘cease and desist’ email in reference to a bootleg copy of Last Holiday that was on my computer. Downloading then seemed far lesser cooler than it was before the first time I nabbed a free track from Napster.

Napster, for all its pros and cons, changed the way we consume media. Alex Winter’s all-encompassing doc Downloaded charts the epic rise and fall of the computerland giant from its conception by teenage friends Shawn Fanning and Shawn Parker to its inevitable collapse at the hands of the music industry. Napster encapsulates the explosion of the digital revolution, and Downloaded captures the practical and ideological shifts that the industry struggles to reconcile as more and more of our daily habits move online and become peer-to-peer.

Downloaded, structured in chapter format, begins with a quick overview of the creation of its programme from its founder, Shawn Fanning. Fanning explains how a flash of genius inspired him to drop out of university and pursue a big idea. He assembled a code for the file-sharing programme with help from an online community. It was through this network of hackers that he met Shawn Parker (who doesn’t come across like the douchebag Justin Timberlake entertainingly portrayed him to be in The Social Network) and the pair led Napster through a relaxed, youthful start-up.

The subsequent chapters of Downloaded introduce a roster of talking heads who discuss how Napster embodied a greater shift in culture’s relationship to technology. Napster seemed to realize the democratic philosophy of the Internet, as it allowed for endless connectivity and peer-to-peer relationships. People could connect faster than ever before by trading songs and swapping music, much like one does with albums, books, and films between friends. The programme anticipated much of the social media boom that was to come.

On the other hand, the murky legality of Napster’s file-sharing made it difficult for many parties in the music industry to embrace the new technology. As Fanning and Parker explain the structure of Napster, it seems clear the project was conceived in a legal grey area that was covered somewhat by laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, although the law simply could not keep up with technology. It’s nothing different from making a copy of a CD onto a blank cassette for a friend (a precedent that surprisingly fails to receive mention in the film), but Napster was arguably the first incident of large-scale digital copying that could be tracked and quantified.

File-sharing programs such as Napster and its progenies enable(d) free circulation of copyright material regardless of how one looks at the network and user behaviour. The differences between the talking heads, rather, are philosophical ones. Some parties—including Napster programmers, businessmen, and musicians—see this endless hub of free circulation as a landmark opportunity to let art and commerce flow freely. Music could reach a wider audience than ever before and users could discover artists that were not previously accessible to them. Even if people were downloading something for free, a download presented an opportunity for future sales if a user liked what he or she sampled, much like my experience with watching a freebie of Down to the Bone and then sending twenty bucks in Debra Granik’s direction once the film came to DVD.

While a sample might be a potential sale for some, it’s a theft for others. It’s Chinatown bootlegs for the masses, the industry honchoes suggest. Downloaded gives ample time to groups like Metallica, who launched a lawsuit that led to the downturn in Napster and ushered in a form of sensational rhetoric to sway public opinion. Many musicians in the film agree. But for every Lars Ulrich there’s a Henry Rollins who describes the digital revolution as a boon for the music industry. There was money to be had if the industry adapted to new modes of consumption. (There’s also a hilarious bit of archival footage with Posh Spice, who doesn’t have a clue what Napster is.) Alternatively, tools like Napster afford relatively cheap outlets for distribution because content providers simply need to make a single file of a song to reach an endless number of customers whereas the reach of physical recordings is finite and expensive.

Downloaded succeeds best, though, by drawing out the ramifications of the defeat of Napster as a lose-lose situation for its producers, users, and the music industry alike. Regardless of whether one sides with or against Napster, it’s hard for one to overlook the underlying agreement within this tightly constructed debate. The digital revolution, symbolized by Napster in this case, put a fundamental ideological wedge between producers and consumers. People like freebies, but business models rarely change to adapt in order to better those below the top tier. The music industry failed all the same because it sold out fans that merely want to enjoy music, but can’t afford to pay the full price of a physical album.

The talking heads in Downloaded provide an insightful and highly entertaining overview of the cultural, commercial, technological and ideological influences wrought by Napster. Winter attacks the moral monster of Napster from all angles, as Downloaded is almost painstakingly objective in its comprehensive exploration of the Napster narrative. This solidly-produced film accounts for virtually any clause for or against Napster. Whether one sides with art or commerce, the film makes a strong case for both.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Downloaded screens:
Saturday, April 27 – 9:00 pm at the Isabel Bader
Sunday, April 28 – 3:30pm at the Scotiabank Cineplex
Friday, May 3 – 9:30 pm at the Fox

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