Monthly Archives: January 2014

‘Downloaded’

The Generation Y Promise

Way back in the late 1990s, Napster was the rage. All the crappy mp3 files were there to be downloaded if you wanted it. being of the Gen-X persuasion, the excitement of this technological development passed me by because I was quite happy buying CDs andtrying to get a better sound quality out of my limited Hi-Fi budget. Even now, I’m not big with this downloading business. I recently downloaded the David Bowie release ‘The next Day’ when it was released, through iTunes. A few weeks later, I spotted the CD version and bought that too and really, I’ve listened to the CD more often than the iTunes-Download. I’m just old fashioned that way.

Still, I get the excitement. Not having to pay for stuff is great. Even if the file is crappy, it’s better than not having it at all. Napster essentially plugged that ‘gap’ for the young and a bunch of hotshot Gen-Y guys made it fly, changing the world forever. If you ever wondered about those guys and what they were like, well, this is the doco for you.

What’s Good About It

The awful truth is that both the Baby Boomers and Gen-X were completely ambushed by the advent of Napster and peer-to-peer sharing, and this film doesn’t sugar coat it.

The doco goes into great lengths with Sean Fanning, and as the the film unfolds, you come to realise that the Sean Fanning that the media demonised so much back in the heyday of Napster was probably a lot more genuine and admiring of musicians and the music industry, rather than this great disruptor that destroyed the business model. Sean Parker too comes across as a lot more vulnerable and human than the hyper-real, slick, wheeler-and-dealer he was presented as  in ‘Social Network’, played by Justin Timberlake. We get lengthy explanations by the guys who formed the core of that company, and in turn we get a firsthand account of the rise and fall of Napster and what it was like  to be on the receiving end of the music industry’s ire.

The shooting style is quite dry, and the best work is probably in the edits; both picture and sound. It makes a very interesting presentation out of something that might have been a little dry.

What’s Bad About It

Because of the terrain it covers, the film seems to shorthand the more interesting ethical and legal questions surrounding copyright. In some ways you’re none the wiser for why the music industry fails to understand the future is at their doorstep. The film explains it in terms of control and how the big labels don’t want to relinquish control, but the issue is deeper than that when it comes to copyright law and the film doesn’t quite get to it,even though it puts it in scope.

What’s Interesting About It

The truly interesting thing about Napster is that it might have only been the harbinger of the Big Now. It came out of the brain-space of a bunch of young kids not even twenty years old, and it essentially broke the business model of record companies. As somebody who lived through the destruction of that business model, it’s exciting to see that Napster merely signals the beginning. The rigid corporate control of media is breaking down faster as more technology becomes available. The Napster phenomenon, when properly documented shows what Schumpeter called creative destruction.

Even the great success of Google and then Facebook comes downstream from the impact Napster made as a tech start up. And despite the money lost on Napster, the rise and fall of the company essentially kicks off the era of internet where people who code, code our world.

The Big Now Beckons

The interviewees in the doco have a few insightful things to say. One of the things pointed out is that Napster and peer-to-peer sharing represents a break from the vertical line structure of authority as presented by the law and instead releases things in a horizontal plane across the users. In other words, the process of sharing is immensely democratising. This is then dovetailed with Henry Rollins’ claim that musicians are going to be providing more and more social power through social networks and empower people.

Certainly, we now live in a  time when there are more people alive today than there have ever lived and died in the history of Homo Sapiens – a Big Now that flattens history across geopolitics today, rather then as a thread we follow through a time line. What is extraordinary about the Napster story is that it is at once an expression of the Big Now as it is a force that propelled the effect of the Big Now. in essence, it destroyed music industry price through unleashing and supplying demand for free music. In the process, it effectively ended recorded music as having any commercial value and cosigned it to history. We can talk about the history and development of music along different lines up until the moment Napster comes along. After that, the industry is a shadow of itself, and there’s just this strange landscape of the industry trying to sell things with ever diminishing relevance than ever before.

The Metal Guys Were Supposed To Be The Outlaws

One of the more interesting observations by Sean Parker is that the people who got the most irate with Napster were Heavy Metal artists and Rap artists. Artists presenting themselves as renegades and outlaws turned out to be the most sensitive to the flow of money that comes from the control of copyright.  It’s funny how the two Seans were bamboozled by this turn of events, but the politically conservative undertow in Metallica is fairly obvious to see and Rap artists are looking for slights everywhere so it’s no surprise they jumped on a bunch of white boys giving their music away for free.

Peer To Peer As People Power

The really obvious lesson in all of this is that Peer-to-Peer technology is one of the most disruptive technologies out there. Napster connected peers, thus cutting out the middlemen which, essentially made record stores selling back catalogue right out of business. The extension of this today is that the internet vendors of various goods are sending bricks and mortar retailers to the wall. The more interesting extension of this phenomenon right now might be Bitcoin, Litecoin, Dogecoin and all the other crypto-currencies taking off as we speak. What these virtual currencies are doing can be described as Peer-to-Peer of money, cutting out retail banking as well as the Reserve Bank’s function of setting interest rates. Bitcoin is the Napster of money-trade instead of music-swaps. If the rise and fall of Napster is anything to go by, we can probably expect a giant backlash against Bitcoin by the worldwide banking establishment, but in the long run it might not be possible to stop all of these Virtual currencies from sending retail banking to the wall.

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