In the VH1 documentary “Downloaded,” filmmaker Alex Winter revisits the year 1999 when the independent peer-to-peer file sharing service known as Napster hit the internet and changed the way people listened to music. During an interview with me at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival, Winter, 47, who is also known for his role as Bill in the 1989 sci-fi comedy “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” talked about examining the once-popular file sharing system over 10 years after it was shut down and why he thinks society has taken a step back in this specific phase of technology.
“Downloaded” is currently available on some digital platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Comcast, DirecTV, Time Warner Cable and XBOX.
Do you remember what your initial reaction was when Naspter first broke out back in 1999?
I was totally blown away, frankly. Before the dust settled and I actually starting thinking about what the ramifications were for artists and the record industry, my initial reaction was that [Napster] revolutionized everything overnight. It opened up the world to global internet communities, real-time chat and music sharing. It was crazy.
What kind of music were you into back then and how did Napster help you connect to like-minded fans of certain genres?
Well, I’ve always had a very eclectic musical taste. It really runs the gamut from jazz to rock to hard rock. I like classical, obscure jazz, reggae. I’m just really into music. The great thing about Napster was suddenly I could connect to people who liked specific genres from all over the world. You could find people who had amazing collections of John Coltrane uploading their music and sharing. It was amazing.
Did you take full advantage of it right away? Back in 1999, I had friends who literally could not get off the site. They just downloaded music all day long.
I was on it nonstop from the moment it went online in [June] 1999 to the moment they took it offline (in July 2001). Back then my office had about 25 computers. The weekend it went offline – because those of us who were big on Napster knew it was going offline – I ran all of them on Napster. (Laughs) I ran all of them for three days straight. Then Napster was no more.
Why do you think now, more than a decade later, is it a good time to go back and tell the Napster story?
The issues I brought up to [Napster creators] Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker the first time I thought about this movie back in 2002 are even more relevant than they were then. To me, what was extraordinary about the Napster story was that these guys were two 17 or 18 year old kids who invented a usable code for peer-to-peer file sharing that changed the world. They have been part of a revolution that is just now taking hold and still does not have a resolution to it at all. The questions raised by Napster in 1999 have not been answered in 2013. In fact, I think those questions are more volatile and more divisive and more fractious – by far – than there were then. For me, I think the story has more context and relevance today.
Why do you think these questions haven’t been answered?
To this day I don’t believe there is a core understanding of technology by people of these older paradigms. At its root level, I don’t think they understand that these decentralized file systems basically run the internet today. I think fear is a very big part of it. We’re talking about changing everything in the way systems work and coming up with a new system. I think that’s legitimately very frightening. There’s no doubt there’s a lot of contention.
Speaking of fear, there were a lot of musicians back in 1999 afraid of how Napster was going to affect them professionally. Overall, do you feel musicians have gotten used to the idea that their music is going to be shared online one way or another?
I don’t think the musicians are worried about it anymore for the most part. I think that went away a while ago. I think musicians were pretty quick to realize that this was what the new system was and that it wasn’t going anywhere. I think [the fear] was more on the business end. I think something that hasn’t been resolved is the best way to compensate artists, even in the new system.
With all the talk about algorithms and the way the music industry works now on computer systems and whatnot, do you think music itself has lost some of its romanticism?
I don’t think that. There are people in my movie that think that very strongly. I think that things change. Back then, Pink Floyd would come out with a new record and we’d really be excited to see what the cover was going to look like. I don’t think we’ve created what the actual content means is for this stuff, so it’s still all a big mess. But I think we’ll get to that point where we will have the art wrapped around the music again. I think there is a whole future in front of us that is a lot more interesting and romantic and magical than where we’ve come from, but we’re definitely not there yet.
So, do you have any idea what all this is going to look like in 2040?
To be honest, I think it’s kind of tragic in 2013 a system doesn’t exist that combines social media, real-time chat and file sharing. Napster did all of that. I think in a weird way we’ve gone backwards. What I would like to see is us going back to what we had with Napster and make sure artists get compensated. I would like any new model that comes along to be beneficial to both the music and the art.
My favorite footage from your film are the news programs from the 90s that are doing stories on “the internet” but really don’t seem like they understand how it’s going to change the world at that moment. It’s almost like they’re talking about it as if it were a fad.
(Laughs) I know. It was another era, man. People really didn’t know what was coming or what to make of it. It’s really been an interesting transition. I don’t think our kids really know anything except for a world that is internet related. It’s really going to be interesting to see where everything goes from here.