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All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning's Napster Hardcover – April 8, 2003
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It was the best of ideas, it was the worst of ideas. Perhaps the most revolutionary technological concept to emerge in the super-heated days of the internet investment bubble (with apologies to one-click ordering), the peer-to-peer .mp3 file transfer system developed by barely reformed computer hacker Shawn Fanning fueled a company that at its peak claimed 70 million users and ranked as the fastest-growing company in history. Not bad for the out-of-wedlock son of the guitarist for a Boston-area Aerosmith cover band still in his teens.
The story of how Napster challenged the copyrights and distribution hegemony of the world's ruling music business cartel has become one of the e-boom's most enduring myths: David Vs. Goliath, with an outcome more like Tyson Vs. Lewis. In deconstructing the saga, veteran Los Angeles Times business reporter Joseph Menn patiently chronicles the double-dealing, ego, greed, hubris and remarkable naivete informed by precious little long-term vision that variously characterized both sides of the epic struggle.
Perhaps Menn's most telling revelations here center around the previously under-reported role of Shawn's uncle John Fanning, the shady, entrepreneurial con-man who claimed to be Napster's co-inventor/co-founder (distinctions that actually belonged to Shawn's teen friends, Jordan Ritter and Sean Parker), cutting himself in for a whopping 70% initial stake in the company. The elder Fanning's ability to clutch defeat from the jaws of even the smallest victory is set up as nothing less than Shakespearean parable. If Menn's work has a shortcoming, it's his seeming reticence to consider the larger, long-term implications of peer-to-peer file-swapping and an internet culture that enthusiastically stood centuries-old notions of property rights and demand-and-supply pricing firmly on its head by the tens of millions.
Ironically, the record industry's touted quashing of Napster was ultimately akin to killing a hydra-head monster. A variety of more lawsuit-resistant systems ultimately arose in its wake, leading one executive to ponder whether future record industry battles against file-swapping would simply degenerate into a never-ending game of "Whack-a-Mole". Jerry McCulley
From Publishers Weekly
In this definitive look at the revolutionary music-sharing site, Menn follows Napster's trajectory, from its founder Shawn Fanning's bedroom in Massachusetts to his relocated headquarters in California, and from the company's challenge of copyright laws and its stand against music industry behemoths to the federal court injunction that paralyzed it. Using interviews with key players, emails, court papers and internal documents, Menn, who covers Silicon Valley for the LA Times, reveals a union of youth, hype, rash decision-making and groundbreaking technology. The company beloved by young music fiends and bored office workers all across America had its share of problems during its meteoric rise: the shady background of the major shareholder and self-appointed co-founder, Fanning's uncle John; the never-ending search for funding and executive staff; the lack of a concrete business plan; and, of course, piracy charges. For several years, though, Napster was bolstered by public opinion and independent bands at odds with the record industry. "Napster dominated the market," Menn contends, "both because of its damn-the-torpedoes approach to business and its flawlessly easy-to-use technology." But when a judge ruled against the company's sale to Bertelsmann and Fanning failed to raise enough money for his own bid, Napster filed for bankruptcy and the young "ungeeky geek" whose hair gave Napster its name moved onto a new idea-one, he maintained, that would respect copyright laws. This story of hacker versus record giant is already a classic dot-com age tale, and Menn does it justice in this worthwhile read. 8-page b&w photo insert.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Menn presents a thorough account of Napster's lifespan from Fanning's early work on development, the financial backing by Fanning's somewhat suspect Uncle, obtaining venture capital funding, and the eventual rulings leading to the demise of the company. If you have an interest in the companies that started the internet age and the mindsets and actions that were behind building them, this book will be of interest as Menn does a first-class job presenting Fanning's story and Napster's lasting relevance in the digital age.
The book also gives a great picture of the whole dot-com bubble and its mentality. A LOT of time is spent detailing how Napster scraped together the money needed to start and run its ever-growing enterprise. Highly recommended book!
Menn, whose resume includes the LA Times and Bloomberg, takes an unbiased look at Napster and the decisions that they made. He documents the internal fighting that he proffers as the cause of the company's failure. He provides details about every Napster transaction, from the original 30/70 split between Sean Fanning and his uncle (respectively), the company's angel funding, investment by Hummer Winblad, the Bertelsmann loan, and the company's eventual bankruptcy.
The book, though, reads more like a novel than a business book. The book also incorporates afterthoughts from the company's principals about what they would have done differently in retrospect. With the exception of John Fanning (who ostensibly refused interview requests), Mann incorporates lessons learned from all of the principals both interspersed within the heart of the book and in a post-mortem chapter that serves as an epilogue.
For a company that once flew so high to have died so quickly is somewhat amazing (though not as much so today as perhaps it was five years ago). This book chronologies that trip. It is an exciting ride!
These investigations by Menn are initially informative but descend into a tiresome swamp of nitpicking and unnecessary details that detract from the more interesting cultural ramifications of the Napster craze. And the biggest problem is that Menn gets very personal, especially when describing the business executives who got involved in Napster after its incorporation - piling on criticisms from other people who are clearly not neutral observers, and dwelling uselessly on people's love lives and personal transgressions. This goes especially for an apparent personal vendetta that Menn seems to have against John Fanning, Shawn's uncle and business strategist who muscled his way into prominence based on his nephew's invention. It's reasonably evident that John Fanning was a poor businessman and unfairly latched onto his nephew for his own gain. However, be suspicious of an author who relies on character assassinations toward someone who refused to give him an interview. Menn's questionable personal motivations and general focus on unnecessary details damage what could have been a very insightful book. [~doomsdayer520~]
Most recent customer reviews
for what it's worth, i found very little new material here - most of the scoop is previously...Read more