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INTERVIEW: Napster founder Shawn Fanning

shawn-fanning-napsterFourteen years ago Shawn Fanning wrote a little piece of software in his dorm room on Hemenway Street. It allowed users to share and download music files. He called it Napster and he knew it was going to be big.  This is an interview that was published on October 2000, when he was only 19 years old.

He left Northeastern University, founded a company and his service now boasts 32 million users. But Fanning’s road to success has not been without its bumps. Currently, Napster is embroiled in litigation. Metallica, Dr. Dre and the Recording Industry Association of America have filed suits claiming Fanning’s software violates copyright laws. The trial is slated to begin sometime next year.

Fanning, then 19, spoke in-depth with Northeastern News reporter Nathaniel Fredman about his life here at NU, the birth of Napster, what he’s doing now and what the future may hold.

The News: Explain a little what your life at Northeastern was like, what your major was, what dorm did you lived in, the kind of stuff you liked to do around campus.

Shawn Fanning: I was majoring in computer science. I was living in Kennedy Hall, which is the honors hall, and I was taking introductory CS classes. I spent a few years before then learning about computer science, about software development and stuff, so a lot of the material was redundant. But I spent my time doing school work, attending class and in my spare time I would work on other software, play basketball, go to the gym to workout, party, just hang out with friends, stuff like that.

News: How did the idea for Napster first come about?

Fanning: I think I was late in my first quarter at Northeastern and I lived in a suite with two roommates and two suite mates. One of my roommates was into MP3s, his name was Matt, and he was having some problems with a lot of the traditional web-based search engines. Lycos was one of them. Seeing that he had this problem, I had to come up with a way to solve the reliability problems he was experiencing and also had some other ideas on how to incorporate other types of functionality from other technologies into this application that would be a music community. So I started work on the project. At first it was just when I had spare time, or when I was bored I’d sit down and write some code. I had to buy a book, a Windows programming book, because at the time my programming experience was limited to Unix programming. So for me, at first, it was just a small project. What happened was, that once it was functional and I had released it to a few friends, it started to spread and pretty soon the demand for it and the feedback I was getting from people was that they really loved the idea, that they wanted to see pieces of functionality implemented. There were some major bugs in the software and so it just started sucking up more of my time and that of course caused me to compromise school work and socializing. It basically sucked me in. I ultimately made the decision to leave Northeastern, originally thinking about it as taking time off, to try and build this thing out, but it’s been growing so quickly that I really haven’t had serious thoughts about going back to school full time because I’ve been so engrossed in the Napster concept.

News: Regarding your decision to leave school. Were there any events that lead up to it and when exactly did you make your decision to leave?

Fanning: One significant event was a discussion I had with Professor [Richard] Rasala. I spoke to him and told him I had this great idea and was afraid that if I didn’t pursue it now, someone else would build it out and I would regret not trying to implement this idea when I had it. Also I explained that a lot of classes I were taking were redundant in the sense that I spent a lot of time learning about software development before I had gone to Northeastern. He hadn’t recommended to leave school, but he recommended that I really seriously consider this new idea and make sure I really believe in it before I make a decision. He didn’t want me to go and jump and leave school and make a decision that I really hadn’t thought through. What I realized from that conversation was that I had a decision to make. I couldn’t balance Northeastern and this project because it was too time consuming. I was not going to be successful at either if I didn’t make a decision. That was a really important discussion. Other than that, it was a gradual process in the sense that the software was growing and there were lots of people who wanted me to take the time to build it out. That was a responsibility that I ultimately accepted.

News: It has been reported that you just left everything in your dorm room, except your computer, which you took, is that true?

Fanning: Yeah. I left for a weekend to go off to Hull to work on the software. I took my computer and some other things I needed. What happened was, I really wasn’t planning on leaving. I was planning on coming back to school. My cousin was bringing me back to Kennedy to drop me off and I remember walking towards the dorm room and I stopped and I just realized that I had to go and make a decision. I made the decision to go back to the office and take the next few months and build it out. The reason I left everything at school was because I knew that if I spoke to my suite mates and told them I was making this decision to leave, that they would question my decision. I knew that I didn’t really understand the idea well enough to articulate it to them. I was afraid they wouldn’t understand and that they would convince me not to do it. I wanted to make the decision and prove it to them that it was the right decision after it was successful. I didn’t have a good understanding of how much time this would take.

News: Bill Gates said the reason he left Harvard was because he thought other people had the same idea, he just had to beat them to it… is that the same way philosophy you had?

Fanning: Ultimately, I was concerned once I devoted all of my time and left and I was focusing on it full time, thinking about it and the company. I was definitely competitive, only in the sense that competition is something that is fun to me and I wanted to develop the best application I could. My original thinking was that it was a challenge. It was exciting and it was something that I felt strongly about. Originally my main focus was just on trying the best system that I could build in a short time. A lot of the stuff I was taking at Northeastern was somewhat redundant and so to me this was something that excited me pretty quickly.

News: Do you think you’ll ever go back to school?

Fanning: I haven’t considered it seriously. I’ve been thinking about taking a few classes, but right now I’m so focused on trying to improve the Napster user experience and improve the community. I know I don’t have time right now. Things are so volatile and so crazy around here that it’s hard for me to make a definitive plan to go back to school or to go and start something else. I’ve considered it and I definitely want to go and take some classes I’m just not sure about going back to school full time.

News: How is life in Northern California different than it was here in Boston?

Fanning: There certainly are not as many kids my age. I find myself hanging out with a lot of older people. Boston is great because there are so many schools in such a small area. There’s so much to do. In Northern California, other than going out to San Francisco, there isn’t as much socially to do when you’re under 21. So for me I definitely miss the social aspects of living in Boston, and going to Northeastern. At the same time, there’s so much work to do that, I wouldn’t really have time to enjoy those aspects in Boston right now.

News: Andy Grove, the former chairman of Intel, said, “The whole Internet could be re-architected by Napster-like technology.” Explain to me how this is possible.

Fanning: I think he’s touching on a lot of potential of peer-to-peer technologies. There is the potential to leverage all the resources of all these workstations that are out there. These millions of PCs that have large hard drives and fast connections and are capable of doing more than acting as dumb workstations for people. The potential to leverage those resources for purposes of solving a variety of complex bandwidth, processing and storage problems, are huge. He’s touching upon the fact that this is a really early stage technology. This is the first step in that direction.

News: There are no ads and no fee to use Napster, how do you make money?

Fanning: Well, right now we don’t. To date we haven’t generated any revenue. We have accepted investments from a venture capital firm that has been funding the bandwidth costs and server costs and the fees to actually run the service.

News: According to Media Metrix, Napster is the fastest growing Internet company ever. How many subscribers do you currently have and what’s your rate of expansion?

Fanning: We currently have 32 million registered users. It’s probably a bit more than that now and somewhere around 900,000 simultaneous users. We’re growing at a rate of about one million registered users a week and that rate is increasing as well.

News: It seems that this is a phenomenon that started with college kids, but now even my father has Napster on his computer. What do you think of that and how quickly it’s spread?

Fanning: I think it’s amazing. It’s interesting, because a lot of people say that Napster was adopted early by college students and I would say that’s the primary user base of the system. What’s amazing about it now, is that we’ve found that probably over half of the people using the service are over 30. We attribute that to a lot of the college-age and younger people who adopted it early going and telling their parents and showing it to their parents, or their parents seeing them using it and learning how to use it by watching their sons and daughters or figuring it out for themselves. We see it as drifting across that age gap which is really great to us.

News: You guys haven’t spent anything on advertising or promotion yet, what do you attribute your growth to?

Fanning: People love music. This is a system that allows people to learn about new music, to sample music and to interact with people who have similar interests. From that perspective we found that people really love the service and that’s why we believe it’s grown.

News: Did you ever think you’d be on stage with Carson Daily at the MTV Video Music Awards introducing Britney Spears?

Fanning: [Laughs.] Of course not. Early on, to me, it was a small project that I was pursing because I wanted to learn Windows software development, but also it was just a challenge. I knew that the idea itself had potential, but I really was not expecting the work I was doing, the application I was developing, to grow into being something this widely used. Even further than that, I was not expecting to be asked to do things like interviews and go on the MTV Video Music Awards. It’s just not something I ever could have expected. It’s definitely been a bit difficult to adjust and to became comfortable with things like that. I’m still not comfortable with them.

News: Did anyone come up to you backstage and say, “Hey you’re the kid who invented Napster and you’re affecting my CD sales?”

Fanning: No. The greatest part of that whole experience was that everyone was so nice and so interested in what Napster is and what the potential is. It was really uplifting to go and talk to a lot of the artists there, many of which who may have been publicly, or appeared to be against the idea, but really be interested in what Napster is, what’s not and discuss some of the potential the service has to offer to artists. To me that was a great experience.

News: Do you think you’re famous?

Fanning: I don’t know. It’s a little strange not being anonymous anymore. More frequently now than ever people will recognize me on the streets. The greatest thing about that is, whenever I meet people on the street, or they come up to me and explain that they use the service or just want to talk about Napster in general, they’re always supportive. The percentage of people that I meet that are supportive is incredibly high. Almost everyone I meet on the street or that I talk to understands what we’re doing, really likes the idea and supports us. That’s really uplifting.

News: The Recording Industry Association of America has filed suit against Napster saying, “[Napster] enables and facilitates piracy of music on an unprecedented level.” Are they right?

Fanning: No. I’m not a lawyer and I can’t really get into the legal arguments too deeply because we’re engrossed in litigation. What I can say is that we have grown to 32 million users in about a year and we believe that people using the Napster service for the purpose of sampling and interacting with people of similar tastes. Learning about new music is a very good thing and they obviously love it.

News: Napster clearly allows its users to obtain songs without the artist being compensated for their work. Do you think this is fair?

Fanning: We, as a service, have been in discussion with the labels. Our main interest has been in working with the labels to try and settle this peacefully. We obviously believe artists should be compensated and proposed many deals that would provide a way for us to improve the system which we believe currently benefits artists, labels and consumers. Currently CD sales are up consistently over the past few years. As long as Napster has existed CD sales have continued to increase. So we believe that once we can settle this situation peacefully, we’ll be able to build out a lot of the functionality that will make it possible to bring additional value to the labels and to the artists.

News: Has there ever been a point when you wished you never invented Napster?

Fanning: I would say no. For me, early on, my goal was to try and prove the concept. We’ve done that, which is a great thing. I’m satisfied with that. Sometimes, with a lot of the attention it gets – I’m pretty shy naturally – so sometimes that’s a bit awkward or difficult for me to deal with. Everyone’s so supportive and so many people really love the service that I never really think of that.

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