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).
"The reason we stuck to music is that we were huge music fans," Parker, the music fan, told audiences during the Q&A after "Downloaded," explaining his perspective on the firestorm during Napster's public image battle in the early aughts. "There was such a campaign on the part of RIAA and the labels and various artists that were upset with us, to demonize us... we were more like these poor broke college-aged kids, if anything -- more like the people in bands than the people running record labels."
Parker is now approaching his mid-30s and is a billionaire and he no longer has that "struggling music artist" image. He is, however, one of the smartest dudes in the room when he said something at his panel that should strike the heart of all artistic creators: "There’s definitely some sort of dissent brewing between labels, publishing companies and artists."
As unsexy as the word "copyright" is, his point is that copyrights are where fists meet faces. Artists like the Black Keys are pissed at Spotify because of the perceived worth of their copyright, what cut they get from the service, and how big that original cut is. Their conflict should also be with other copyrights holders of their music, which sits in the world of publishing and licensing. As services like Spotify grow and make money, that anger will be directed back to labels who don't reward their artists, not the application itself. That brewing dissent will take aim at publishers who don't champion and place their artists copyrights, not the music devices and programs that make discovery possible.
"There’s a lot of artists whose contracts are written in such a way that they do not get paid for what’s happening on streaming services," Parker said.
He'd know. And maybe, with these years of experience of knowing what consumers want and what artists create, he can apply that expertise to Spotify and other "disruptive" ventures in the future.