It’s mainly about the history of Napster and the guys who started it, but from behind the scenes. For most of us, all we knew about the whole incident was what the music industry wanted us to know. Pirates were stealing money from artists, and they must be stopped. As is common, the truth behind the scenes is a whole lot more complicated than that.
And by complicated, I mean that the music industry is full of lying, scumbag pieces of shit! But more on that in a moment.
Part of this issue is about business models. The music industry reached their heyday built on record labels for talent acquisition, management, recording and marketing, radio stations for publicity, record stores for retail sales and concerts for some additional publicity and branding. Also, the concert tour is where the artists could make enough money to pay back their advances and maybe actually make some decent money. It was usually enough to encourage them to make their next recording and start the cycle over again. The ‘single’ 45rpm recording got you to pay for two songs when you only wanted one. The album did the same but with you paying for 10-12 songs when you wanted maybe only 3-4 of them.
All of this was beginning to shift by the time Napster came along in 1999. Now it’s in full swing. You can stream most anything, and if you can’t you can buy it through several online services. The price is low, the product delivery is instant. Musicians can find each other locally or online, record at home, distribute and market their recording directly to the fan online. They can also book tours directly. Everything is sold one song at a time, and you never have to buy a song you don’t want. And even if you pay very little for the music, or get it for free, the band makes money on merchandise and experiences (concerts).
This movie documents how the industry fought tooth and nail to stop all of this from happening. In the end, they slowed it a bit, but they missed an incredible opportunity. Napster had financing and FIFTY MILLION users! They could have been an industry-controlled iTunes. Instead, the RIAA and Hilary Rosen burned it to the ground, and sealed their own doom in the process. Napster was replaced by a dozen clones, the number of people sharing music outside the normal channels actually increased and all it took to kill all that was to make it easy to download music priced reasonably. That’s how Steve Jobs did it with iTunes and iPods, and later the smartphone. The RIAA shot themselves in the foot, and it looks like the patient is terminal. In the meantime, the millenials generation has shifted from owning songs to giving their time and attention to songs and artists. The measure of success is attention and sharing, which translates into merchandise and ticket sales, and sponsorship money.
For those times when a band needs some money to live on while they aren’t on the road, the crowdfunding model has become very successful. Once you get some street cred, fans will actually pre-purchase enough music and other items to cover your time in-between concert tours. Jack Conte, of Pomplamoose fame, co-founded Patreon, which allows fans to become ‘patrons’ for their favorite artists in many genres. It’s part of the trend.
After watching the movie, I came away with a particular animosity for several people and entities:
- The RIAA and music labels, naturally. I was motivated to be sure that I never gave them any of my money, ever again.
- Metallica - I’ve never been a big fan but I did like a few of their songs. Now I’m committed to see them fade away into a well-deserved obscurity, hopefully one without royalties.
- Hilary Rosen - this is an evil person. She has gone on to help defend BP from the massive oil spill in the gulf and to try and push SOPA through Congress. She is now a lobbyist with a long list of White House visits. FUCK her.
I’m glad to see Shawn Fanning was able to go on and make some good money from other efforts. And, of course, Sean Parker has had insane success with Facebook and Spotify. Many others in the movie have gone on to other companies and careers. It’s a really great movie, and if you ever downloaded music before iTunes, you should see it. And hey, it’s free! You’ll come away from it with a better sense of just how much of a massive shift the internet is to music and musicians, and hopefully a desire to support your favorite bands.