AUSTIN -- If there's anybody who had a front row seat on the dismantling of the traditional music industry model, it's Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, the two founders of Napster. They put that show on. Peer-to-peer sharing indisputably was part of weakening labels, falling sales and creative disputes between artists and the companies that were supposed to support their artform, and Napster was one of the first companies to do P2P well. In turn, it was the lightning rod to the storm to come.
Fanning and Parker were on hand for the premiere of "Downloaded," a documentary on Napster, at this year's South By Southwest film conference, and further spoke of Napster's influence on today's modern industry landscape during a SXSW interactive panel. They told crowds here first-hand what it was like to be the darlings and the "criminals" of the internet era, and just what the hell they can do about it today, 14 years after Napster was founded.
Watching "Downloaded" at SXSW was like watching my own personal history. I remember scrolling through millions of available songs in the millions of free libraries and it shaped the music listener I am today. I remember Napster's various interfaces, MTVs coverage, Metallica media interviews, even the Senate hearings, but even more so, I remember the high of falling in love with new artists because a free, curated and boundless archive was an obnoxious dial-up modem sound away.
There's also that faint remembrance -- a turn of the stomach, really -- when I realized it wouldn't be this free forever, when the RIAA was suing users, when artists I liked were being hurt because contracts and monetizing systems weren't up to par. Copyrights are still the center issue today as hundreds of companies work to take chips out of iTunes' seller dominance and streaming discovery services try to break through mainstream and make their own money.
Like the hoards of music artists converging on Austin, millions of artists are online and dying to be heard. And so then there's Fanning and Parker, again, front row.
Parker is an investor and board member of Spotify (and he and Fanning are tapping another technology, Airtime, in hopes that it clicks with video consumers).