Film: Downloaded (2013)

July 15, 2015 | By


Downloaded2013_posterFilm: Excellent

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Genre:  Documentary / Internet / Music

Synopsis: Vivid & highly informative chronicle of the birth and death of pioneering file sharing site Napster, and its irreversible effect on the music industry.

Special Features:   n/a




The creation of Napster revolutionized the music industry by a) making copyrighted music available for free; b) enabled more than a single generation to grow accustomed to the concept of grabbing commercial art gratis; c) created a peer-to-peer file sharing interface that became commonplace in rival programs; and d) created, as several interview subjects in Alex Winter’s documentary describe, ‘a perfect storm’ which upset an established organization – the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA – and their efforts to keep in place an outmoded commercial system which espoused to represent artists, but ultimately benefited labels, and during the Napster fracas, teams of lawyers.

Winter’s doc was one of three media-related examinations that premiered at Hot Docs 2013 – the others being Terms and Conditions May Apply, and TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away from Keyboard – and was lauded by critics and audiences as perhaps the most prescient, given the timing was right to chronicle the meteoric rise of Napster which began as a college kid’s idea to allow a group of strangers to interact socially via the sharing of music on their respective computers.

Was creator Shawn Fanning a genius, a visionary, or a monster that seeded a terrible sense of self-entitlement in which an artist’s work should be available for free?

There are many, many views that float through Winter’s truly hypnotic doc, and it’s to his credit Downloaded isn’t an assembly of flashy sound-bites; he allows his subjects to express themselves at length and creates striking contrasts between polarizing figures.

Winter’s narrative of Napster’s rise and fall is so neatly organized into chapters, twists & turns, and post-mortem analyses by a modest representation of participants and critics that it’ll remain perhaps the most effective film document of how downloading, file sharing, and the stubbornness and greed of labels enabled legal teams to ultimately reap benefits from Napster’s odyssey.

It’s unsurprising that Apple stood silent during the legal fracas, waiting for the dust and lawsuits to settle before moving onto the smoldering battleground with iTunes and allowing music fans to download licensed songs for a fraction of an album’s cost.  As one expert opines, with iTunes, the main creative and corporate parties got paid, and digital music files were handled by a respected commercial entity who realized that control of the content would fuel the sale of their own in-house devices tailored to generations already accustomed to portable customized music libraries.

When Napster’s creators, its supporters and the head of mega-label BMG make prescient statements about the need to adapt in the face of a shift in commercial music distribution and consumption, it’s clear RIAA’s pyramid required a redesign.

The most amusing moment comes from Gnutella co-founder Gene Kan when he states at a Congressional hearing that smashing Napster will launch more peer-to-peer variants. A few feet away one can see RIAA lawyers and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich suppress more than a little ire, and yet Kan was correct, both in the way music, films, and TV would be devoured by consumers.

Many of the need-to-control arguments, the sense of free entitlements, and the industry’s decision (via RIAA) to sue miscreants (Napster’s creators and client / file sharers) to death didn’t solve anything because as one former label CEO admits, ‘How do you fight free?’

Not uttered is its direct consequence: ‘How do you undo the expectation of free?’

While a vividly  filmed chronicle of an upstart company founded by college kids that changed the way music is enjoyed, delivered, and the concept of ownership, Downloaded also catalogues the perpetual clash between corporations wanting to own the full lifespan of a work from creation to sale, and the technological evolutions which perpetually challenge those very control mechanisms.

One could argue efforts to reconfigure the music industry during Napster’s rise in 2000 could’ve saved a lot of nastiness among multiple parties, but one question remains untouched within Downloaded: after the ash has settled and the sharp jagged bits of rubble have been collected, how can an artist maintain some control over their work, and earn a living income?

The answer is they can’t, unless it still involves some significant usage of established corporate mechanisms, because vertical integration – in parts or in whole – remain in place, enabling large firms to control huge chunks of the distribution process after a song’s creation, so claiming there’s more choice, more potentially fair revenue sounds weak  when a single company can own multiple labels, manufacturing plants for the hardware and media, the music sites, and the media streams that publicize their product.

After a lively and amusing first half hour, the doc does lose some of its momentum around the hour mark, but the narrative has to detail Napster’s fast collapse because the arguments bandied between the sides are necessary to hammer home the far-reaching impact of Fanning’s creation. Winter also makes use of a wealth of archival footage, often cross-cutting between present day interviews with Fanning and colleague Sean Parker with archival Q&As when MTV has same-aged correspondents engaging in actual reportage instead of reality show junk. One can see the clear shift between the boys of Napster versus their more matured and experienced 2013 counterparts, and there’s a lot of self-reflective moments within those sections.

Although the aforementioned docs were well received at Hot Docs 2013, only Terms and Conditions is available in North American on DVD. Pirate Bay, released almost immediately online,  is available from various sources including YouTube, while Downloaded has kind of fallen off the map, although it too can be viewed on YouTube.

Winter’s latest film, Deep Web (2015), is similarly internet-themed, and focuses on the rise and arrest of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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