Alex Winter (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, The Idiot Box) has spent the last decade trying to make a movie about Napster, the revolutionary peer-to-peer filesharing site that changed the music industry forever. Winter met Napster founder Shawn Fanning in 2002 and was instantly energized by the possibility of telling the company's story.
Originally, the film was supposed to be a fictional narrative along the lines of The Social Network, but now Winter has almost completed Downloaded as a documentary, with a screening due at SXSW.
"I felt that what Napster was doing was the biggest youth revolution since the '60s," says Winter by phone. "I couldn't understand why that wasn't obvious to everyone else. This was the beginning of something very, very important."
Napster allowed people to build huge libraries of songs for free. To be more accurate, you uploaded your copy of Kill 'Em All on your computer, and anyone who was looking for a song off of the album could then download it to their computer.
Artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre filed lawsuits against Napster in 2002, calling the program piracy, and other titans of the music industry joined in. The next year the service was shut down, and its assets were sold off in 2002.
However, the door had been opened, and the amount of music bought, shared and/or stolen on the Internet continues to climb each year. It has fundamentally changed the way we think about buying music, and yet to blame Napster isn't really fair.
Articles talking about file-sharing and digital music buying appeared in tech publications decades before Napster was founded, according to Winter. The change was headed to the music industry like a tsunami, with or without Napster.
It's a pretty inarguable fact that music sales are down, and that piracy plays a big factor. However, Winter offers a much broader look at the music industry's woes. He freely admits he's no expert, just a guys who has talked to a lot of people and closely watched many things happen, but his logic is rock-solid.
"The music industry from two decades was a bubble, just like the housing bubble," he says. "It was all related to the death of the single and the birth of people buying whole albums for a single song. Twenty-five million copies of a Britney Spears album was not in any way a sustainable market. It burst. It's just that simple."
Winter has a point. The biggest-selling single of all time is Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." Crosby released his tune at a time when artists had to keep putting out solid singles that did well in order to stay on top. There was no coasting a record on one song.
But eventually record executives realized that if you did away with the singles system, you could get people to pay $15 for a single song. Oh, they still released singles, but nowhere near the numbers of yesteryear. Granted, the list of albums worth album price for their content is huge, but the number of albums that weren't worth album price is exponentially larger.
What we are dealing with now is the rebirth of the single, made possible by iTunes and the services' quick, cheap and easy method of delivering whatever you want easily. However, it has also reduced the amount of money being spent on music.
For instance, Rocks Off bought four songs this week: The Sisters of Mercy's "1959; the Pixies' "Space (I Believe In); Flowers & Machines' "Breathe" and Primus' "Southbound Pachyderm." We paid around $6 total. Based on the old model of buying entire albums to get one song, that would've cost us $30.23 new and $12.35 used, according to Amazon. Clearly, Winter has a point.
The drop in sales has been lauded as an indication of the death of the music industry, and there's more bad news. The RIAA estimates that there are 17 percent fewer professional musicians than there were a decade ago. More and more are forced back into day jobs, unable to make ends meet in their craft alone.
We sympathize. It's been our contention that most music in the future will be made by amateurs, while only the very highest echelon will still be nothing but rock stars. We'd more or less resigned ourselves to this fate, but here Winter manages to bring some hope.
"I think the real problem right now is you're seeing the death of the old paradigm butting heads with the birth of the new,"he says. "Compensation for the artists has to be paramount to the new business model. Right now, the evolution is being hamstrung by the legal battles still being fought over the old paradigm.
"When the dust settles a whole new way for artists to get paid and make a living will emerge. When the music industry gets over its fear, its panic, and its evangelism we'll see a new world without borders."
Thought he quickly added that there will always be someone out to screw over musicians in the name of greed.
The birth of this new, chaotic, boundless landscape where artists and fans are connecting at lightning speed is the focus of Winter and his documentary. Downloaded is the world of a man who has obviously bonded deeply with this troubling change of days for musicians.
His finger is on the pulse of change, and we cannot wait to see the finished product.
Alex Winter, Shawn Fanning and others discuss Winter's Downloaded at SXSW, 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Austin Convention Center. See sxsw.com.
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