I’m a person who likes charts. They bring order to complicated ideas, and that’s, well, kind of beautiful. No, really, it’s true. The next time you see a chart, stop to think about whether or not you would fully grok the underlying point without the visual. (If you’re a chart junkie too, you can get your fix at Chart of the Day.) But wait, I digress. Let me get back to my point, because I think I actually have one this time. (Really. I promise.)

My all time favorite chart is this:

Adoption Curve

This is the “Adoption Curve” chart. It’s probably a bit hard to read, so let me explain. The X axis (from left to right) shows time, from 1910 to 1999. The Y axis (from bottom to top) shows percent penetration into U.S. households, from 0% to 100%. Each line of data represents a different technology — the long squiggly blue line is the telephone; the first red line in the middle is television; the next red line is color television, and so on.

Successful technology is adopted in a measurable, predictable pattern: Early adopters fuel slow, steady growth until the utility of the technology in question surpasses what it is replacing (refrigerators vs. ice boxes), and the cost drops to a low enough point to allow for mass consumption. When utility (increasing) and cost (decreasing) meet, the percent of households adopting the technology makes that hockey stick turn up, and all heck breaks loose.

Of course, not all technologies succeed. The little blue line all the way at the right represents the adoption of telephone pagers. Project this chart forward just a couple of years, and that line turns back down in a sort of bell curve. Think about laser discs, or if you’re old or geeky enough to know what they are (I’m both), think about eight track tapes. But those were failures in execution, not concept. People wanted mobile communication, high definition movies, and portable music, and in each case a better mousetrap was waiting in the wings.

This is what I had in mind last night as I watched Downloaded, the new Rock Doc from filmmaker Alex Winter. The movie chronicles the spectacular rise and spectacular fall of the original music file sharing service, Napster.

If you’re one of the three regular readers of this blog (Hi Mom! Hi Dad! Hi @cheapmedsforsale!), you know that I love rockumentaries. Downloaded, I’m happy to say, gets added to the list of my all-time favorites.

“I made the movie because I thought no one had ever told the full, honest story of Napster,” the director said in a Q&A session after the screening. “This is a story that deserved and needed to be told.” He’s right. It does.

The basic premise of the film is that the CEOS of the major record labels were too stupid — some might say greedy, I’m sticking with stupid — to understand and leverage what was a seismic shift in consumer behavior. People, who’d consumed music the same way for 50 years, had found a new, more facile, more interesting way of acquiring and listening to songs. We had moved from our Walkmans (Walkmen?) and portable CD players to something better. Napster was the engine that drove that change.

And that engine was operating at the redline. In a very short window of time, Napster grew from tens of thousands of users to more than 25 million worldwide. Napster’s success was so sudden and so unexpected that the music industry, in a kind of confused spasmodic response, sued the site into oblivion.

Take a look at this chart (see, I told you I like charts):

Napster Growth

When Napster reached 15 million U.S. users, a federal judge issued a court injunction shutting the service down. Look at that peak in spring of 2001. The growth had been following the predictable pattern of explosive adoption we saw above, then WHAM! External forces reversed the trend. But they didn’t, they couldn’t, change the underlying cultural shifts that allowed for that growth in the first place. The genie was out of the bottle.

There’s an old adage in the world of innovation: Pioneers get slaughtered, settlers prosper. (MySpace, anyone?) And that’s what happened here.

Unfortunately for the music industry, by killing young, lovable, upstart Napster, they created their own worst nightmare. Napster’s success, and the vacuum left by its abrupt departure, spawned iTunes.

Apple Growth

The story of what happens to music after Napster — Downloaded takes us through the end of Napster — is chronicled in an excellent book, Appetite for Self Destruction by Steve Knopp. But before you read that book, see this movie.

(I read something else recently about the folly of corporate copyright holders… If only I could remember where I had seen that? Oh yeah, right! It was here on this ol’ blog!)

At its heart, Downloaded is more than a story about technology or business. It is first and foremost a story about people. The protagonist is Shawn Fanning, the father and founder of Napster. Winter’s movie makes you fall in love with Fanning, cheering his victories, fleeting though they were, and feeling the pain of his eventual defeat. The cast of characters — those who fought for and those who fought against Napster — is fascinating. As much as films like The Social Network are fun (and I love that movie), it’s so much better to hear a story like this told in the words of those who were there.

Downloaded is playing in limited theatrical release now, and will be available on DVD soon. Don’t miss it.

One Commentto Downloaded

  1. Thank you for the reference and recommendation; I will definitely seek out “Downloaded” (it may not make it to the suburbs, but there is always Netflix). A few years ago I read “Perfecting Sound Forever”, a book that makes a point that applies here, too: the music business was somewhat blinded by sound fidelity, a point of view that made sense to producers but to only a handful of consumers. They tended to dismiss the MP3 format as inferior to other, “lossless” options. As a result, they ignored the impact of reasonable-quality, portable music that could be obtained by the song. I think that view compliments the one you describe here.

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