In 1999, two 19-year-old kids changed the world with a little Internet site they called Napster. Very few moments in music history have been as polarizing as the click that enabled people around the world to freely share and download music over the Internet.
The firestorm that would become the lives of Napster co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker from 1999-2001 is brilliantly captured in the new documentary Downloaded. The film focuses on the advent of media sharing, including the rise of the game-changing company and its controversial pioneers. The digital revolution ultimately created a technology paradigm shift and upended the music industry.
Audiences will hear insight from well-known artists and figures within the music industry including: The Beastie Boys’ Mike D, Noel Gallagher, Henry Rollins, former Sony Music chairman Don Ienner, former record producer and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell and Hilary Rosen, former chief executive officer of the Recording Industry Association of America. I talked with director Alex Winter about this truly riveting documentary that world premiered March 9 at the SXSW Film Festival last month.
What made you decide to make Napster the subject of a documentary?
I was really fascinated with Napster when it first appeared. I used it like crazy. I’m kind of tech oriented, and it was really clear to me that it was just going to change everything. There was nothing even remotely like this that existed. And it just suddenly showed up. In 1998-1999, we had no broadband, no fast Internet. We had dialup, and there were no Internet communities…no Facebook…nothing, and suddenly, overnight, we had all of that, and it worked. It was incredible. And suddenly, you had a social community, and you had real-time chat. You had the ability to quickly move media around amongst your friends, and it worked, and it didn’t break down or stop or take nine or 10 hours to move one file. It’s really hard to convey how big a deal that was to those of us who were really utilizing the net at that time. It was a very, very big change. So, I was really taken with Napster, and I just thought the whole thing was revolutionary.
Was it difficult to get the people involved to go on camera and talk about it?
Some of them yes, some no. Fanning and Parker I knew really, really well and some of the other major players in Napster I knew really well. That doesn’t mean they necessarily wanted to talk about it.
You know, Fanning and Parker had lived through it once and it was probably the most painful experience of their lives so it took some convincing. And certainly on the record label side, it took convincing that, you know, that I really wasn’t setting out to make some kind of goofy, didactic story and make everyone look like idiots or make the record companies look like idiots or anything, I really felt like no one has ever really told this story. You’ve heard different versions of it, but there’s never been a really definitive explanation of what started the downloading revolution and how we got here and now what. That’s what I was really hoping to answer. Certainly what I’ve done isn’t an end all, be all it’s just a piece of a very big conversation, but I at least wanted to add to that conversation.
I guess when Lars Ulrich shows up at your company doorstep you must think you’ve done something really right and really wrong at the same time.
Yeah, you’ve completely succeeded and completely failed all at once.
Having directed both feature films and now a documentary, how does directing a doc differ from directing a narrative?
I’d never made a documentary before. I’ve worked in a lot of different mediums. I’ve worked in advertising and TV as a director, and I’ve worked on a lot of TV commercials so I’ve done a lot of commercials in documentary style. I’m a big fan of documentaries, and feel like I know the structure and how they operate. But it’s interesting. It was very enjoyable. But I kind of did it like a narrative. I structured it in three acts. I used my script as a template. But you have to be a lot more flexible with a documentary and that’s what I liked about this story.
Would you be interested in revisiting the idea of doing the story as a feature film?
Well, that was a definitive, “No.”
I really don’t. I honestly feel this is the very, very best way to tell the story. I don’t want to tell it again in another way. I really feel like it’s done, and I feel like in a way I dodged a bullet because all that time I wanted to make it as a narrative, I was convinced that was the way to tell the story. And I think it was only like a month into making the story that I turned to my editor going thank God.
I didn’t make this as a narrative because there is no better way to tell the story. The story is filled with so many weird details and so many really brilliant idiosyncratic people, I just don’t think there is a way to tell the story and convey the depth of those people.