Shawn Fanning, at 24, has already had a career's worth of fame as creator of Napster, the free peer-to-peer music-sharing service that changed the record industry, before it was litigated out of business. (Don't mistake that effort for the current music-subscription service that bought the Napster name.) But he thinks the best is yet to come. His new company, Snocap, is gathering an electronic registry of millions of songs, along with information on who owns the rights, and what, if anything, they want to be paid for a download. The registry and software that supports it will (he hopes) be licensed by peer-to-peer services that would instantly become legal, for-pay versions of Napster. So far, three of the four major labels and many indies have signed on. Fanning dropped by NEWSWEEK recently to discuss his second effort.
LEVY: After the problems with Napster, why start a peer-to-peer related company like Snocap?
FANNING: After Napster began to deteriorate, I became disillusioned and started thinking about the business side. A few of us got together and began to discuss the idea of a system that not only identified songs, but determined who owns the work. When I try to explain to people what I'm building, they'll ask, "What do you mean? There's no central rights database?" They just can't fathom the idea that there isn't a single registry or some way to determine who owns what content.
Were you worried that the labels wouldn't deal with the guy who started Napster?
Actually, on a personal level, with the exception of one altercation with an unhappy artist, everyone was always friendly. Even people who were publicly critical were still intrigued by our system and the fact that it had attracted so many people. Like, I met [Interscope Records head] Jimmy Iovine backstage at a U2 concert, and I was shocked at how cool he was about everything.
Snocap will allow individual artists to enter their works directly into your directories, and get paid for downloads. What will be the effect of that?
We'll be in a position to start to push music to much smaller groups of people. So there's a possibility for many more musicians to actually sustain a career and build a fan base.
What was it like when Napster took off?
It really was a blur. We had a staggering number of users, but for us, they were [just] numbers on a screen. I couldn't function if I thought about it too much.
How do you personally obtain the music you listen to?
Uhh... [Laughs] Actually, the [peer-to-peer] services are just a nightmare right now. I look back to Napster and I remember back then and how exciting it was--everybody was learning about new music all the time. It doesn't happen anymore. Now, probably because of the spyware issues and lack of trust, the services that exist today have become tools. People log in, do a search and log out. Even though a lot of people criticized Napster, the users created a community, with people making the effort to go and browse other people's catalogs. Hopefully, once Snocap is running, someone will recapture that.