livegoats writes "No self-respecting culture maven can deny their love affair with Napster. If you weren't spending your spare time in the years 99-00 downloading MP3s like a champ, it's likely you were still in diapers or dancing with wolves. Oh, Napster, we loved ye when. Joseph Menn's All The Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning's Napster carefully chronicles the life of the company -- from its age of innocence, though its battle with the powerful music industry, to its slow unraveling in 2001, a foreshadowing event for the rest of the dot-com world." Read on for Livegoats' review.
One thing's certain: Menn, who covered Silicon Valley for the Los Angeles Times, meticulously researched his subject. The book is loaded with facts and figures, but more impressive is the level of National Enquirer-worthy details Menn milked from mountains of transcripts and one-on-one interviews.
Menn's discoveries can be described as nothing less than shocking, at least for anyone who hasn't followed the story blow-by-blow. We learn about Shawn's money-grubbing uncle, John Fanning, whose shady business practices cost the company numerous investors, but also the respect of his own family. Menn writes that at first Shawn Fanning was pleased when his uncle drew up papers incorporating Napster, Inc. Then the elder Fanning told Shawn he would be getting only 30 percent of the company. John Fanning would keep the rest. Shawn was stunned.
Menn also exposes Napster executives' ignorance of copyright laws, the company's pay-off to rapper Chuck D so he would publicly support file sharing and rockstress Courtney Love's flirtations with Shawn, whom she once introduced at an award show as her future husband.
With a boatload of rock stars and other curious characters, you'd think the spectacle of it all would overshadow the book's business patois. Menn attempts, valiantly, to do so, but it's still evident that All the Rave is a long-handed exercise in business reporting rather than a drama-filled account. There is little surprise in the overarching Napster story because most readers will know how the story ends before cracking open the front cover.
If you're still committed to All the Rave, the best reading takes place in two separate sections: the first on the peer-to-peer program's incubation, and the second on Napster's attempt to take on the well-muscled music industry.
In Chapters 1 and 2, Menn introduces Shawn Fanning, an unassuming high school kid who comes from humble beginnings. Though his life doesn't exactly make for a Horatio Alger story, it's interesting to see how Shawn stops pursuing a sports scholarship for college and instead focuses on computer programming.
After his uncle John gives Shawn his first computer, the aw-shucks kid from Massachusetts comes across a brilliant idea, peer-to-peer file sharing, which he develops with the help of friends in several online communities. The story is touching, and it's fascinating to take a behind-the-scenes look at how the program originated, first through Shawn and then as the product of a tight-knit online community.
Techies of all stripes will be amused as Menn attempts to make computer programming jargon edible to the mainstream reader. Just imagine explaining terms like IRC and warez to your grandma, and you'll have a good idea of the language in these beginning chapters. Despite a few cornball explanations, however, it's still refreshing to see past Napster's media hype and to see Napster for what it started as: a labor of love created by a kid who wanted nothing more than to take advantage of the online universe.
Following chapters barrel through the company's beginnings, dedicating much space to vilifying John Fanning, who seems to deserve every bit of consternation the reading public can muster. After the shock of the elder Fanning's behavior wears off, however, you'll find yourself dragging through painfully detailed accounts of acquiring executive and meetings with skeptical venture capitalists. Anyone who isn't utilizing All the Rave as a handbook on how not to run a business can skip to Chapter 7, in which Menn shifts the book's focus to Napster's delicate dance with the music industry. It's a Davey and Goliath tale for the 21st century. To accent the vastness of the undertaking, Menn dishes out a brief history of the music biz, offering such a compelling analysis of the Napster/music industry camps that it could easily be expanded to fill an entirely different book.
If you don't want to read at all, you can simply look at the pretty pictures midway through the book. Talk about a yearbook: there are pictures of Shawn's hacker pals, a photo of a wilting Lars Ullrich from Metallica, Jack Valenti and other corporate clowns, smiling like there was something to be happy about.
And maybe there was. In the end, Menn shows how Napster was, like other dot-coms, "little more than a publicly supported pyramid scheme, built on the long-true presumption that an even dumber investor was just down the road."
If you want a solid study on copyright law and running a business, Menn's read will not disappoint. If you're looking for a fluffy piece of literature that will keep you awake into the wee hours, try the one with the bespectacled boy on the cover. You probably know the one I'm talking about -- Harry something or other...
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