The revolutionary promise of digital music became reality with the rise of Napster. The file sharing network pioneered a functional and comprehensive catalog of music with its enthusiastic users. Developed by then-teenaged Shawn Fanning in 1998, Napster became a worldwide phenomenon in less than a year. Co-founder Sean Parker helped develop Napster into a company. Mass acceptance came quickly, but legal challenges ultimately doomed the original service. Despite the controversy and lawsuits, Napster changed the music business and paved the way for iTunes, Rhapsody, Spotify, and other music services. The divide between the cultural establishment and technology innovators was defined by the disputes raised by Napster. After more than a decade of declining sales of recorded music and imperfect attempts to present a licensed alternative, the influence of Napster continues to be felt.
At SXSW, I listened in on a discussion with Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning where they discussed these issues in an effort to promote their film Downloaded. The panel opened with a montage of clips from the VH1 rockDocs Downloaded film. The trailer touched on the start of Napster, the revelation of how easy it was to get music based on a search term, how quick the results were in the age of dial-up, and the growth of Napster as a company. There are a couple of gems there as well, such as when Fanning said back in 1999 that he believed the future was instant music access from multiple devices, including stereos and smartphones (well, he said "cell phones," but still.) this is a movie about kids revolutionizing an industry they knew nothing about.