Napster, the extinct file-sharing service company from the early 2000s, had a fast and furious lifecycle; kind of like a supernova that comes out of nowhere, burns bright and then fades fast. The company flamed out so quickly that its influence now seems to be cast to the back pages of history.
The documentary "Downloaded" makes a good case for Napster being one of the more influential tech companies in this young 21st-century. Released in 2012, the film chronicles the company's rise, its extraordinary nadir, and dramatic fall. All the key players within the company are interviewed at length. The film also includes perspective from the relevant tech periphery, in addition to a wide range of opinions from various musicians. It’s worth checking out.
Watching it brought me back to when I moved to San Francisco in late 1999, during what became the first dot-com bubble. SF and the Bay were bustling. People were pouring into the city, and, as a result, people were also leaving the city in droves, in what I would later recognize to be a reoccurring pattern in boom and bust cycles. The city was undergoing a massive cultural shift because the cost of living in limited space was becoming too expensive and too exhausting for many.
Back in 1999, I was attracted to the music and the general industrious nature of artists in the Bay. I was also drawn in by the variety of new media and wanted to be a part of it. Upon arrival, I was shocked by how expensive things were and nearly defeated by the complete lack of available housing. I knew there would be challenges, but I didn't fully realize...
My life got fucked up pretty quickly. I worked a string of crazy jobs to stay afloat. My first apartment in San Francisco was only a slight improvement from living in my car. My personal woes were made to seem much worse by being immersed in a shifting culture that was always chasing the Next Big Thing. The word "sexiness" was thrown around frequently at the time. The big venture-capital money flooding the Bay Area could make anything look sexy.
It was a goofy time and a certain shallowness of character tended to rule the day, as will happen when events become saturated with hoopla and hype. But there was also an air of real revolution about what was happening in the Bay Area. The change brought about by advances in digital technology didn't bleed slowly into the world of general business; they landed like meteorites. The Information Age was upon us, suddenly, after a few decades of casual speculation of what it would look like.
The original Napster (there were two incarnations, the second being inconsequential) was one of the larger meteorites, coming into existence in June 1999 and succumbing to lawsuits in July 2001, and everyone was talking about it back then. During the company’s brief run, it can arguably be considered the face of how the Internet 1.0 influenced and altered perceptions of art, commerce and culture. Napster shook the entertainment industry to its core within months of being in existence. In a broader sense, Napster initiated the common dialogue about “shared economy,” and it pretty much antiquated the notion that nothing was truly free or without cost.
Napster made downloading music free and easy. In a nutshell, you could get any song you wanted at the cost-free click of a button. You could also allow your digital music collection to be shared with others. From an intellectual property standpoint, it was grade-A thievery. It was hard to call it anything else: the creators of the product weren’t being compensated. The defense of “sharing” was typically a jumble of moral relativism. Bottom line: the stuff was free so why pay for it?
At some point, the surrounding arguments gave way to an understanding that the technology genie was out of the bottle. The train carrying the shared economy had already left the station. Napster didn’t survive the extended conversation - corporate interests representing the status quo shut them down and fast. But, the old-school model of the entertainment business didn’t survive either. We are less than two decades removed from that era and very little of it resembles how business gets done today.
Today’s young adults are the first generation of people to grow up with a normalization of horizontal authority, meaning authority given to the many rather than a select few, also known as vertical authority. Vertical authority was the value system holding sway for a couple hundred preceding centuries. Horizontal authority is basically the governing tenant of a sharing economy. And its here to stay with companies like Uber and Airbnb. Future generations will look at the broad strokes of how horizontal authority came into wide practice and wonder why people initially challenged it.
Historians in the future might not see anything particularly brilliant within the inner-workings of Napster – the idea behind the company was pedestrian, the technology was assessable in its time, the personalities meh, they were simply the first to implement an inevitable idea – but the company made a significant impact along the timeline of our evolving Modern Age. I remember using Napster. It did what people said it would more/ less. Their service offered a certain convenience that was understandably appealing. Personally, I preferred a trip to the record store – and still do.