Q&A: Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning on 'Downloaded,' The Napster Revolution

Napster co-founders Sean Fanning, left, and Sean Parker in a still from "Downloaded."

They were wiry teenagers when they ignited the digital revolution, altering the music landscape forever with a little program called Napster in 1999. Now, 14 years later, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker are older and wiser, but no less passionate about their original mission to give people access to the music they want, when they want it.

Both men -- and their Mountain-Dew-sipping co-conspirators -- get the biopic treatment in the upcoming Vh1 documentary "Downloaded." Parker, who for a while after Napster served as the president of Facebook and is now an executive at Spotify, was famously played by Justin Timberlake in David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-winning 2011 film "The Social Network." But "Downloaded" is a more personal story, both for the subjects and for director Alex Winter, who was an early supporter of Napster and counts Fanning and Parker as friends. It begins with soft-focus footage of teens looking for connections online in the late ‘90s and ends with a step-by-step retelling of the legal melee that destroyed Napster and left its founders tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

We caught up with both Parker and Fanning in Austin for SXSW, where "Downloaded" had its world premiere. They had a lot to say about whether Napster was ethical, how their greatest dream was to work for the major labels, and why the concept of music ownership is dead.

Billboard.biz: You two recently collaborated again on the video chat service Airtime. I have to say I find it a little bit surprising that you guys are still friends and business partners after everything that went down and all these years.
Sean Parker: I find it surprising, too.

Shawn Fanning: [laughs]

What is it about this collaboration that has made it sustain?
Parker: I think it’s a lot about going to war with someone. There’s a lot of similarities between when we were working with Napster and what happens when you go to war -- metaphorically, but also literally. When young kids get drafted into the military, they go to war and it’s a band of brothers situation. They experience things outside of the normal world and their normal lives. So there’s this bond there because you’ve experienced things that other people don’t experience that are truly weird. And you’re tied together by that. So even though you may drift apart, you ultimately…

Fanning: Understand each other.

Parker: You understand each other. And you find a sense of comfort in those people you went to war with because they’re the only ones who really get it.

A still from "Downloaded"

Do you still have open wounds from that war? Watching the movie and looking back, how do you feel about everything?
Fanning: I feel fat.

Parker: I feel super embarrassed by my 18/19-year-old self. I wasn’t really comfortable with myself and who I was at all at that time. But I had very clear ideas about the future of content distribution, in particular music distribution. And if you sat down with me then, I would probably say almost exactly what I would say now. I had this notion that users were gonna pay for portability, that convenience was really the only thing that you were gonna get anyone to pay for. In fact, up until that time, CDs were the most convenient thing, and CDs had taken over from tape and vinyl simply because they were more convenient. You could skip to any track and also you could take it with you -- it was portable. So convenience and portability, portability being a form of convenience, were the two most important things if you looked at the entire history of format changes. And so I was trying to make this point during all of our label negotiations. Imagine me sitting there in a plaid t-shirt saying “O.K., there’s going to be this device and people are going to pay to get their music on it...”

Fanning: We talk about this a lot. What’s more important: Ideas or execution or timing? All the ideas were there.

Parker: The technology wasn’t ready, and people weren’t ready to hear it.

Fanning: But people were ready to share music. They had been doing that part already, [Napster] just made it more convenient. From our standpoint it was hard to wait. Especially coming from a generation where you can get basically anything you want instantly. It’s frustrating when you want to make a change and you see a fix but you can’t make it happen. So sometimes you push too hard.

Parker: You have to learn how to take it step-by-step. Even if you see the ultimate outcome, you’ve got to be willing to understand other people and how to sequence all the steps to get to that outcome. My end of the bargain at Napster, having gone from a programmer to helping run the company and handling label negotiations and the legal stuff, that part of it was a failure. My whole contribution to Napster in some sense was a failure. And so I didn’t feel like I had finished the job that I set out to do until I got a chance to help negotiate the licenses for Spotify. That’s when things kind of came full circle. We now have a service that looks basically identical to what we were trying to build at Napster.