Downloaded Review
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Like many of my generation, I first heard of Napster while attending college. At the time, with the Internet still very young and nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is today, the music-trading service sounded more than a little sketchy. After years of buying CDs, the idea that you could download as many songs as you wanted for free just didnít compute. It was awesome and a little dangerous. Now VH1 and director Alex Winter (who will always be known to some of us as the excellent Bill S. Preston, Esq.) have charted Napsterís rise and fall in the new documentary, Downloaded.

Developed by college students Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, Napster didnít invent the MP3 or Internet file sharing, but it brought both to the public conscious in a big way. Downloaded traces the initial creation of the software, its adoption by students and other tech-savvy types, the explosion into popular culture, and finally the assault by the recording industry to shut it down. Combining archival footage with interviews from those involved as well as various music industry professionals, itís an overview of a significant shift in how we consume media.

  
 
The film focuses, as it should, on Fanning and Parker. Napster was Fanningís babyóbecause he wanted a way to share music files with his friends more easily. He comes across as the more reserved of the two, the tech guy to Parkerís nascent businessman. But neither man fits the commercial anarchist imagery that started to attach to them during the height of the Napster controversy. Instead, the film presents them a couple of college kids who hit on a neat idea, saw that it could become something big, but were more than a bit naÔve about the potential consequences of such a direct challenge to copyright laws.

While the filmís sympathies clearly lie with the tech kids and dreamers, it doesnít skip over the difficult position in which the recording industry found itself. If the Napster creators were guilty of ignoring the legal and ethical questions their software demanded, the industry was equally guilty of ignoring the profound changes that were taking place regarding music itself. While artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre became the face of the anti-Napster industry backlash, it soon becomes clear that those who were used to controlling the profits from distribution were hopeful that legal strong-arming could make an example of the Internet upstarts.

Downloaded also briefly touches on the legacy of Napster, including the file-sharing services that replaced it, the rise of Appleís iTunes to provide a legal avenue for MP3 sales, and the projects that Fanning and Parker took on later. Already pushing a healthy hour and 45 minutes total running time, itís not surprising that this section of the film gets cut a little short.

For those music fans who remember the shift from CD players to iPods and smart phones, Downloaded provides a comprehensive overview of how it happened and the players involved. For future generations who will undoubtedly consider buying a $15 plastic disc for the privilege of owning one song out of ten a barbaric practice, it will be a history lesson in how unpredictable cultural change can be. Either group will come away with a new appreciation for our ever-growing collections of music and ways to listen to it.


Ed. Note: Downloaded is currently making its way to theaters in limited release, with an On Demand release upcoming in July of 2013. For more information, visit VH1ís Rock Docs page.

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