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Avuncular

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Understanding Napster is essential to a grasp of how we got where we are now with P2P, the hysterical flapping of the music industry, and the various possible entertainment-delivery futures. We ran an excerpt from Joseph Menn’s All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning’s Napster from the LA Times a couple of weeks ago; now, the Boston Globe Magazine is running an excerpt from the perspective of Napster’s money man, Shawn Fanning’s uncle, John Fanning:

    Most people assumed that Shawn controlled the company that bore his childhood nickname, but in fact his little-known uncle had been calling the shots from the start. John Fanning was the closest thing to a father that Shawn had. But the elder Fanning had made some terrible calls, behind the scenes, as the press was turning the soft-spoken Shawn into a generational icon.

    Coleen Cerrier, John Fanning’s older sister, raised her son Shawn by herself at first, then with a truck-driving husband who gave her four more children. They lived near Brockton’s housing projects for a time, and Verrier could see her already-shy son withdrawing from the urban turmoil around him. ‘‘He went inside himself real deep and said, ‘I want to get out of this.’ Even though it meant losing him a little bit, it’s what I wanted for him,’’ says Verrier, then working as a nurse’s aide. As Shawn grew, Verrier turned to her business-minded brother, John, to help guide her son. John Fanning gave him money for each A he brought home from school, and he bought him an Apple Macintosh computer that Verrier could never have afforded.

    Shawn worked summers in Hull at John Fanning’s Internet company, Chess.net, often sleeping on the couch. ‘‘I was just getting into programming, so I spent a lot of my time just fiddling with projects and hanging out,’’ Shawn says. It was also then that Shawn discovered what would make him famous: MP3 digital music files.

    ….ohn Fanning bears little physical resemblance to his solidly built and nearly-shaven-head nephew, sporting thinning brown hair and a bantamlike forward stance. He graduated from vocational high school in Hanover in 1982 and took courses at Boston College on and off for eight years without graduating. He wanted to be a contractor and worked in construction. A stint at Boston-based Fidelity Investments sounded better. Fanning, who declined to be interviewed, says through an attorney that he worked there as a ‘‘senior trader,’’ handling high-risk investments. He also spent time in Fidelity’s ‘‘telecommunications group,’’ which the lawyer says dealt with holdings in the telecommunications industry.

    Fidelity says something different. According to spokesman Vincent Loporchio, Fanning worked as a console representative for two years. Console representatives do not make trades. ‘‘They are responsible,’’ Loporchio says, ‘‘for watching customer call volume and routing customer calls appropriately.’’

    In the early 1990s, John Fanning bought a struggling computer business on credit, and it failed after two years. His next try at business began with his love of chess. A staff of Carnegie Mellon University graduates got small equity stakes in Chess.net, with Fanning keeping majority control of the online games firm. Fanning’s dominant position was ‘‘an invitation to disaster,’’ says software engineer Brian McBarron. Coworker Matt Ramme says the team was too inexperienced to know that the balance of power should have been different; the staff had initially been overly influenced by what they thought was Fanning’s past success. ‘‘We were working for free, essentially,’’ Ramme says.

    John Fanning did some things right, including making a deal for referrals from America Online that brought in thousands of online chess players. The internal management was another story. The programmers soon discovered that the office rent and other bills were going unpaid, and even paychecks were erratic. Numerous lawsuits from the late 1990s show that Fanning’s troubles extended beyond Chess.net. He lost two default judgments totaling about $44,000 for bad debts in 1999, and he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon after he attacked a maintenance man at his Hull condominium complex. Fanning later got the default judgments vacated on the grounds that the creditors had his address wrong. The assault charge was dismissed after Fanning completed pretrial probation…..

Another fascinating angle to the foundation myth of our digital entertainment future.

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About Eric Olsen