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August 23, 2013


Aug. 23--Downloaded, documentary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3 chiles

What music lover doesn't recall the heady early days of music sharing with a bit of nostalgia? It was all there, Madonna to Miles Davis, waiting to be transferred right to your desktop, without charge and with very little hardship. That is, until the major record companies and a few cash-hungry artists started seeking justice for what, they claimed, had been stolen. Before that, though, music was available from everywhere at once, and music lovers were discovering a wide world of audio that they might never have known if it had cost them $15 or so for an hour or less of tunes they did and didn't want. Suddenly, music distribution was less a business and more a community, a community that practiced what we were all taught back in grade school: to share. This, as one of the interviewees in Alex Winter's documentary Downloaded claims, was a "golden age of music." The corporate music houses, of course, didn't agree. That the people who made the music were and still are split on the matter reflects the question at the center of Downloaded. Was it sharing? Or was it piracy?

Winter -- he was Bill in the 1989 comedy Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure -- gives us a somewhat frustrating account of Napster, perhaps the greatest music-sharing software of all time. The film is something like David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, a semi-fictionalized look at Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Napster co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, like Zuckerberg, were equal parts juvenile genius and naive entrepreneurialism. They never seemed to take the time to consider how their creation would be judged by the powers that be in the music business. And when forced to this consideration, they weren't sure how ?to respond.

One of the best moments in the film comes right at the beginning. The opening audio is the old buzzing sound of a dial-up modem making its connection, a sort of music in its own right. That sound becomes a symbol of the community that would form behind it as well as the technological advancements that would spring from it. Ignorance of the internet and its potential seems precious. A revealing clip from Today features Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel quizzing someone off-camera on just what exactly this thing called the internet is.

Soon we're following Fanning and Parker as they seek ways to make sharing information between computers faster and easier. Their focus was music, and they were driven by their own youthful passion for tunes, a passion shared by nearly everyone of their generation (and beyond). Napster would not have become such a sensation -- or as challenged -- ?if it had been aimed at sharing almost anything else. As the software became faster and more efficient, it was embraced by a small but steadily growing group of users. By the time of its demise, Napster had more than 26 million users.

Downloaded finds illustrative examples of the problems associated with distributing music from the days of the first recordings. One old clip shows the bell of an early phonograph being pulled off and chewed by Nipper, the RCA Victor dog. There may be no better symbol of the record companies' treatment of music and musicians. The claim that the ?45 rpm recordings of the '50s and '60s seldom turned a profit but delivered ticket-buying throngs to performances reflects the experience of the band Dispatch, which was amazed to find that crowds turned out for their concerts despite their lack of radio play and other promotion. The band members became big Napster supporters when they realized their audience had been created through file sharing. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds testifies at a Senate hearing in 2001 that his band, after signing with Columbia, made little money off royalties from record sales. Other artists take the opposing stance, saying they were robbed by Napster. Some, like a couple of the Spice Girls, are oblivious.

Charges of evil practices on the part of the record companies, from withholding royalties from black artists to the co-opting of independent rock (especially psychedelic rock), aren't new. In Downloaded, the major labels come off as greedy and clueless, overwhelmed by file-sharing technology and resistant ?to any claim that it might actually stimulate their business. Chuck D says that it was the first time in history that "the audience beat the record companies to the technology." Suggestions that change must be embraced rather than resisted come from Mike D of the Beastie Boys and Henry Rollins.

The second half of the film, in which the record companies fight to destroy Napster and succeed, is foreshadowed in the first half. Winter's sympathies are obviously with Napster, given that he airs the claims that it democratized music and that enforcement of dubious copyright law led to the criminalization of an entire generation. The cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow says that the efforts against Napster and its users was "like the war on drugs." While the movie does a good job of allowing the other side to speak, its representatives mostly come off sounding arrogant and selfish, painting the debate with incriminatory and often false descriptions. Dr. Dre and Lars Ulrich of Metallica, both of whom have a carefully cultivated anti-establishment pose, smear their images with pro-profit, pro-corporation statements. It's not your music, they seem to say. It's ours.

Many of the larger questions raised here go ?unanswered. Suggestions that Napster served the same purpose that radio play did in previous generations need to be substantiated. How should artists make a living from their work, and who owns that work once it is in consumer hands? What's the difference between sharing and piracy? (The record companies would say none.) Do corporations facilitate technological advancement or, once their profit sources are established, resist it? Though Napster was functional barely more than two years, it revolutionized the way music is distributed today. No longer must we buy an entire recording to get the three ?songs we like. And music continues to be shared.

One of the more astounding aspects of Downloaded is how long ago the whole episode seems. Napster's heyday ended in 2001, only a dozen years ago, and everything online has changed many times over. ?The record companies? Not so much.


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