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Downloaded: The SXSW Interview

By Austin Powell, Fri., March 2, 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2pm, Austin Convention Center Room 18ABC

From his uncle's office in Massachusetts, 18-year-old college dropout Shawn Fanning created Napster in 1998. A martyr and hacker, the unassuming programmer spurred a vicious sea change in the digital era.

"There were all sorts of fundamental reasons why Napster was the right answer," maintains Fanning from his apartment in San Francisco. "It was important that music was freed up in terms of the limitations around the access to the content, the control of distribution, the kind of stranglehold and manipulation of promotional news – the ability to share and try stuff before purchasing it.

Napster was court-ordered into oblivion in 2001, but it blew the top off the genie bottle. The service inspired not only obvious successors like iTunes and Spotify, but also provided the fundamental platforms for YouTube, WikiLeaks and, to a lesser extent, the passive sharing that occurs on Facebook.

"In the end, it provided an opportunity for people to share this breadth of work that went well beyond top-sellers," says Fanning. "It created this real diverse, interesting, colorful jukebox in the sky – this collective music collection – and that diversity hasn't quite yet been achieved since."

Fanning doesn't wax nostalgic about Napster. Those three years lasted a lifetime, he says at one point. But lately, he's been re-examining that period for Downloaded, a feature-length look at digital music being produced for VH1 Rock Docs by South by Southwest panel host Alex Winter (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure).

Fanning's also reunited with Napster co-founder Sean Parker, now on Spotify's board of directors, for a new project called Airtime. While details are scarce, Fanning says he was inspired by the success of Chatroulette, a voyeuristic site that randomly placed users in various video chat rooms.

"We're really just making it up as we go," Fanning deadpans. "We don't really have much of a plan. We just figured we'd raise as much money as possible and just figure it out later."

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