Friday, August 30, 2013
Review: DOWNLOADED: Paradigms Lost
I remember the brief flash that was Napster. At first, it really did look too good to be true; people sharing their music collections. Anything new you'd heard about to old chestnut albums you'd never got around to or just wanted again. Dowload times could be slow. Boomers with public profiles joked crankily about it being like getting it in real time or longer so it was worse than cassettes in the old days. Well, cassettes was what it was like and not just because of the load time or reduced audio quality. It was like cassettes because that's the way albums got around at school. Someone would get the big buzzy LP and you'd give them a tape. If you dug it enough you'd shell out for the record because that was the real thing. If you drove a car you'd have tapes of everything anyway and when those mangled up you'd just make more (assuming you hadn't got sick of them in which case you wouldn't bother).
That's how I and a lot of others saw Napster. The only reason I hung on to some mp3-ed albums or burnt them onto cds was because of zero local availability. The industry didn't see it that way. When it heard about Napster it tried to shut it down. Eventually, the corps had the rug pulled out from under them anyway when things like itunes, that got the point of Napster, changed the game forever. This documentary is about that as much as the vision and ingenuity of the creators of Napster as a program and concept. The companies were shown the future and they dug their heels in. It took the bits and bytes team to use it properly.
We all have some version of this story as we were present during the time when the music industry went from empire to a post colonial shell and the real money went back into live performance. Radiohead gave their new album away online and kept filling stadiums. DIY retail sites gave anyone the equivalent of a record deal (without the promo machine but the times had allowed for that in a way they never had for the indies of the 70s and 80s).
So, while we have an idea of what happened we don't know much about the people who brought it to us. This film addresses that and the almost unsettling self-effacedness of the principal players is one of the reasons why I began with all of that rather than anything about the movie. Shawn Fanning and Shaun Parker along with a crew of hoody wizards revolutionised music culture from a larder sized office because they knew it would work the way it did. Even though they operated in the grey they also knew it was only time between the revolution and its suppression.
There is a real poignancy in the straightness of this documentary. A series of talking heads tells the tale between blocks and bites of news footage. No attempt is made to cute up the concepts with animation or amp the ironies through editing. Its plainness serves some of the trickier concepts involved that reveal the mistakes the suits made when they found out. They all talk about the scale of the copying and how it outstripped anything passed on by direct means to that date. They all, wittingly or not, admit to failing to see the massive shift in the paradigms of marketing and distribution. The only way they could think of to monetise it was direct pay to play rather than using the light speed peer spread that was already happening. The passages about iTunes etc have a quietly triumphant feel to them because of this and the absorption of Fanning and Napster into the machine a moment of sadness but only in passing.
See? Again, I'm talking much more about the issues than the movie .... maybe it's just a good documentary.