The first mp3 I ever downloaded was “Sweet Home Chicago” by The Blues Brothers. I downloaded it on Napster, and I remember the experience clearly. I fired the song up on Winamp, and I was so excited by the possibilities. The song was immaterial; I didn’t have buy CDs at Best Buy for $12 anymore. I wasn’t the only one who was excited: Napster fundamentally changed how the user interacts with culture, to the point where record companies definitely noticed. Founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker found themselves facing the ire of a very pissed off Record Industry, and the subsequent record battle left them reeling. VH1 rockDoc’s Downloaded captures that late nineties zeitgeist, in all its glory and anger, and unspools the multi-faceted conflict with grace and a torrent (ha) of information.
The documentary, available today on demand, was directed by Alex Winter. Name sound familiar? Winter got famous because he was Bill S. Preston, Esquire, in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. There is so much to discuss from the Downloaded, so most of our conversation went there, but don’t worry, I asked him about the Bill and Ted sequel, too.
How did you get involved with this documentary? What intrigued you about Napster?
The short version of all this is I was kind of a tech head, I’ve sort have always been a tech head, and on the filmmaking side of things I’ve been working on visual effects and computer effects since the late eighties and early nineties. I was really fascinated with the net from the beginning when regular joe blow knuckleheads like me got online. I was really into BBS and newsgroups, stuff like that, but they were crazy unstable and slow and cumbersome and a pain in the ass. It really took until Napster in ‘98 when the net was still pretty cumbersome and slow and it was just this crazy service because overnight, there was this radical leap forward in everything. There was a global community that worked, where before there really wasn’t one unless you had some degree of tech savvy and a shitload of patience. It was fast when the net wasn’t fast, it was global, and that was widespread, you could connect with people all over right away.
It was such a big leap forward in so many ways. I think that for people who were already kind of playing with the net, more than just getting on their AOL account, I think it really was just a gigantic seismic leap forward. So I became hugely interested in Napster, both as a Napster user and also as someone who closely followed this insane, scandalous, divisive story that erupted. So I hunted those guys down and I pitched Fanning a way of making a movie out of his story back in 2002 while Napster was still dying. We hit it off and I sold it to a studio. I wrote it as a narrative, way back then between 2003 and 2005, and the studio wanted a turnaround and I walked away and made other stuff. Then I came back to it about 2009/2010 because all these issues I had researched when I wrote it the first time that I thought were gonna get solved were way worse and nowhere near being solved. Everything was more heated and screwed up than ever.
What are these issues that you thought were going to be solved?
There were three or four primary glaring things that Napster immediately raised. I would say in terms of their order of significance, the first was the global community. For me, Napster was the first robust consumer oriented global community: your average [internet] user was in a community online, as opposed to just IRC hackers and tech dweebs like me. It was everybody. [We’re talking about] 60 million people. That’s a lot of people all over the world. It raised the issue of a global community, the democratization of culture. I think that’s the biggest thing it was in the forefront of. It didn’t invent it, obviously, but it was an evolutionary thing. It was coming with or without Napster, but Napster was at the forefront of it. That issue leads all the way to the Arab Spring and Wikileaks and Bradley Manning and now with Snowden and everything else. That’s a pretty big rock in the water. The issues around that were clear to a lot of us in those days. They were clear to regular people like me and they were clear to people like JP Barlow from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
You interviewed him, right?
Yeah, he’s in the movie. He’s the really hip awesome bearded guy. He had written extensively about the ethical challenges that were coming. I thought that those issues would have started to get resolved much sooner. I thought that with the advent all these social media sites that popped up after Napster, I figured that we would have gotten more adjusted to [the challenges], which we didn’t. I think that that’s more fractious than ever. I thought that the notion of how business and media and culture is compensated for and delivered, or distributed online, was going to get solved a lot sooner. The issues bracket into different areas because they’re dealing with artist compensation, which is a huge problem today just like it was back then.
You’re also dealing with what I would call the criminalization of our youth. We’re in a panic stricken attempt to stop this wave of new media distribution a lot of people have just been branding everyone as pirates, whether they are or not. There is a piracy problem, but I think that we way too broadly use that description. There’s a lot of issues, and I thought the piracy thing, again, not denying there’s piracy, but the notion of banding that everyone who pulls their content down online as being a thief. I thought that was going to go away after iTunes proved that people did want to pay for content online, which was something that I also thought was fairly obvious in ‘99. To me, Napster wasn’t about stealing it was about convenience and that was really patently clear. Then Steve Jobs came along and said, well “I get it, so I’m going to make a ton of money by proving that theory correct,” which, of course, he did.
One thing that surprised me about watching Downloaded was how it unearthed these feelings that I had about Napster and piracy that I felt in the late nineties. I can’t remember the last time I so viscerally felt fuck Metallica and it was weird to feel that again. Did you intend that? Have other people reacted in the same way?
I think everybody has feelings for that period of time. We have forgotten about because so much has happened since then. I think that’s why I felt the timing was better for the movie than when I first tried to get it made. I actually even wonder whether it is still too early to make a movie about Napster.
Too late now!
Too late now! I’ve done it, damn it! It was such a pivotal period with Napster and all the other stuff that was going on at the time that I think it really connects to people emotionally because I think a lot of people have forgotten what life was like before the Apple revolution, before we had iPods and iPads and iPhones and i-everything. What did the world looked like before then and how we got from where we were to where we are now and everyone’s emotionality is different around these issues. So the film raises different emotions in different people. Some are positive, some are negative, some are mixed. I very much hoped, and felt, that that may be the case.
What is your impression of Shawn Fanning as a person?
I’ve known [him] for so well and for so long that I’m biased. I consider him a friend and he’s really one of the most extraordinary individuals that I’ve ever met. The thing for me about making a doc, which was wonderful, is that unlike writing a narrative it was such an autocratic experience. When I wrote the narrative I was the one determining what words went into his mouth. I could bend the story in whatever direction I wanted it to go and I had to screw with the story all over the place to make it more dramatic. With the doc I really put a team together that I trusted and I was very specific with them that I wanted them to help keep me out of the way of the story. So a lot of these moments of discovery are objective as possible, so whether then me trying to say “look at how beaten down Fanning is,” I think there is a lot of mystery in his face [in that shot]. As an audience member, my take away of that moment, since I didn’t make Shawn do that. I didn’t force him to make that face. I just had cameras rolling and I saw it and put it in the movie. You know my interpretation of that moment is that there is a lot going on in that guy’s head. I think that he’s dealing with the enormity of this experience, which, like any big traumatic or even great experience of a lifetime when we’re incredibly young, it was probably way too much for him to process. I mean Fanning has said to me, so had Parker, that this film has allowed them to process the past because it has contextualized it when they couldn’t possibly contextualize it themselves. That’s not a hat tip to me or the quality of the movie. I think just seeing the events playing out in this way has given them some context.
You said you’re constructing this narrative but you are also beholden to what these dudes say. How do you reconcile the two? How do you deal with what you want to say and what they’re saying?
That’s a good question! I’ve never made a documentary before and that was probably my biggest concern going in, what if I get this juicy quote that if I cut around a few different ways I can make it into this perfect sentence that completely hammers home my opinion of this whole situation. And, truth be told, you can do that. You can really bullshit your way through things like this. There is no doubt that you can. Some documentarians do that in a negative way, but then there are some like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, who are probably geniuses because they that are brilliant at doing that in an artistic way. They can be very pointed about re-crafting the material they have in order to get the artistic quality they want. I did that in a few places where I felt like it was really necessary to move the movie along and get a vibe across I wanted to get.
I did want it to be entertaining and I did want people to feel hammered with information. Not in a factual way, but in an emotional way because that what it felt like to be Sean and Shawn. I felt like for Sean and Shawn between 1998 and 2002 they were blizzarded with information that was so deep and complicated and in some ways earth-changing, world changing, it was almost overwhelming. And I wanted to get across a little bit of that. I did also feel like it was incumbent upon us, me and Jacob the editor, and all of us, to let these guys all talk. I think that the biggest challenge that I had was to try and bring up all sides from their point of view and really give them a voice to make the right points and good points and create, what would feel like, a round table. My friends on the label side are all like, “Ah, thank god you finally told our story.” My friends on the tech side are like “Ah, thank god you finally told our story.”
I actually do love [former Sony Music Chairman] Donnie Lenner, and I mean, who doesn’t idolize [Island Records Fouder] Chris Blackwell? So I did genuinely care about all those guys and the Napster guys. I think it’s a situation that was presented was untenable. If people think, “Oh he though Napster should have been given a deal by the labels,” then they didn’t really get was I saw trying for. I don’t believe that Napster ever could have gotten a deal from the labels. I don’t think the situation could have ended any differently than it ended, personally.
Yeah, that was certainly the impression that I got watching it.
Unlike Shawn Fanning, Sean Parker was an important character in The Social Network, and I’m curious to know what your impression of that film was, how it differs from him as a person, and how it factors into the making of this documentary.
Well, it didn’t because I met Fanning and Parker years before he even went to work for Facebook, much less before they made that movie. I become really friendly with those guys and had a good take on them and a specific perception of them from that. I enjoyed the movie as a story, almost as fiction. It kind of is anyway. To Sorkin and Fincher’s credit, I think the movie that they were trying to make, this is again as an audience member, this is my take on what I got when I watched it, was this was more like a generational drama. This is a story about a very specific generation, the generation Y, and what they operate like. That’s what I got from that movie, and I didn’t take away from that movie a story about tech geniuses who were changing the world. I don’t think thematically, that’s the waters that those guys were fishing in.
To answer your question, and it’s not a criticism at all, it’s just sort of faction, for me Parker is inseparable from the tech genius. I don’t know Zuckerberg so I can’t say anything about him, but in the movie you can do whatever you want, no slight against The Social Network, I mean when I wrote my narrative on Napster I had to lie threw my teeth all over the place to make it work, but in real life it’s inseparable. Fanning and Parker are two of the biggest rock stars Silicon Valley has ever seen. They are not fly by night, one hit wonder guys. They are respected and incredibly smart. When you talk to Parker he doesn’t just talk about going disco dancing, he will blow your mind with the deft of his knowledge about tech systems, global systems, and economic systems. These guys go on a whole other plane, so I can’t really separate that. You know, that’s just totally meshed with who they are.
That makes sense. The movie was definitely conforming to what Sorkin’s sensibilities are. Still, as an audience member it’s odd to see this Justin Timberlake performance and then to see the actual guy talking, and he’s articulate, not an asshole.
To be fair, The Social Network was treading, in a post modern way, on some really tricky ground. Sorkin and Fincher were honest about that at least. Everybody, even down to the actors, would constantly brag about how none of them were on Facebook. None of them knew anything about Facebook. None of them used Facebook. They weren’t interested in that kind of technology. They weren’t really making a biopic, they were making a drama about this generation using existing names. That’s kind of how I took that movie.
You mentioned in your answer before that you were lying through your teeth to make the documentary. What were you lying about?
What I meant was, you have to shape characters. I had to create characters that didn’t exist. I didn’t mean it in some kind of dark Machiavellian kind of way. I just meant that you have to cheat to tell a story. You have to get through three acts and I had to invent characters that didn’t exist. I had to drop characters out that might not have dropped out right at that moment. Things like that in order to shape the narrative. It’s all fairly minor league stuff.
There was music playing all throughout Downloaded. When did you decide to have music play throughout and what did you ask your composer to do?
I asked Paul Miller to score it because I wanted somebody who was going to do a combination of a killer modern score but also thematically understand the world that we were showing was this very compressed, dry, tech, online world from the late 90’s. It had a specific vibe and aesthetic to it. To me, the online experience for a lot of these kids who were working with headphones on is that there was always just stuff playing. There was always weird background music, popup sounds, it’s a continual electronic bombardment of tone. I wanted really authentic web-age monitor shots that conveyed what the net looked like and sounded like. Paul did a really good job of conveying that tonality.
I was involved with Napster and what do you think about the newer generation? They have Spotify and Rdio. What do you think is the legacy of all this?
Kids know that there was a world before any of this stuff was available. My eldest is 14, there was iTunes from the moment he was born basically. They grew up buying their music online anyway. They’re not torrenting. They know that that’s piracy. So, they know. I think the one thing that they don’t have that the next generation is going to have is curation. I think they’re living in a world where everything is still kind of a big broad highway with very little curation. I think that that’s where things are going to change over the next few years.
Can you talk a little more about that?
Because the record industry has been so crippled recently, they’re trying to regroup and figure out their way forward, I think the labels are really good at curation. I mean, like Chris Blackwell says in the movie, you go to Pluto to get a Pluto record. Atlantic puts out certain kinds of records. SST puts out certain kinds of records. Now we just have this big broad highway and no curation by individuals. Kids don’t know where to find music besides word of mouth. There’s a noise floor that’s really high and loud and we haven’t really figured out a way to create. The labels will be good at this, creating curation online. Labels are really good, you can complain about them, but one thing they’re really fantastic at is artist development they do that incredibly well. I think that’s what we’re lacking. I also think we have a long way to go to get artists properly monetized in the new digital system.
Um… can I ask you a Bill and Ted question?
Of course. People are so afraid, I think they’re being told “don’t ask him any Bill and Ted questions!” You can, I just don’t have a lot to offer on the new one. I’ve been disappointing people, but you can ask away.
Ok, so think the movies have longevity because they’re actually really smart about stupid people and I’m curious whether the new one preserves that.
Right… Um… Yes.
Yes, it does. I mean the thing is that Rolling Stone or somebody recently put us on a list of one of the top ten stoner movies of all time and it made me sad because Bill and Ted is not a stoner movie. Bill and Ted are not stoners. They wouldn’t know what to do with a drug if somebody stuck one up their butts. They’re just dumb. They have a naive innocence and stupidity that’s infections. Of course, the new one, that’s one hundred percent what it’s about.
That’s cool. I’m glad that we’ve both admired the movie for the same reasons.
What do you mean they’re dumb! They’re brilliant.
It didn’t occur to me until very recently that the movie is actually fairly sophisticated.
Well, those guys are great writers. The reason I responded to that, even with the first one, was there was this strange sophistication to it considering how goofy the exterior was.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me!
Sure! No problem.