In the beginning was the Word. Then someone figured out how to record the Word, and how to share it on the internet for free - pissing off the entire recording industry in the process.
Sean Parker was born in Virginia, and taught himself to code age 7 on an Atari 800. Whilst many teenagers get in trouble for smoking or taking drugs, Parker’s vice was a little different. He was into hacking - to the extent that when he was 16 his, umm, work hacking a major company, caught the attention of the FBI. Lucky for Parker, as he wasn’t yet legally an adult, his only punishment was community service.
A few years later and alongside Shawn Fanning he co-founded the original music sharing service, Napster. Napster was revolutionary for its time, as it was arguably the first mainstream peer-to-peer sharing service.
Released in 1999, the service would connect up users’ MP3 libraries, which combined with a search engine meant that you could easily, for free, and not entirely legally get access to pretty much any song you desired. In an era of CD albums and long before the likes of iTunes, this was damn near revolutionary. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, as it relied on users correctly naming their files - and of course, this wasn’t always the case.
What was smart about the app was that Napster existed in a legal grey area. Whilst hosting pirated files has always been illegal, is connecting up two internet users to transfer the file? Napster never actually touched the MP3s themselves. The argument, which remains broadly unresolved today is still fought between modern BitTorrent trackers and the entertainment industry.
Eventually, Napster was defeated by the Recording Industry Association of America after repeated lawsuits and attracting the ire of Metallica. But whilst Napster died, it did force the music industry to get its act together, precipitating the rise of iTunes and other digital music stores, and the shift away from physical media.
Poking The Facebook
After Napster and a less interesting company called Plaxo, Parker’s next role was at a little website known as “Facebook”. Paker’s work with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was actually dramatised in the film The Social Network - and Parker was played by none other than Justin Timberlake. As Facebook’s first President, he was apparently responsible for the photo album functionality and was an advocate of keeping the interface “clean” - which was arguably the wise move that helped Facebook capture a lead on the horrible mess that was MySpace.
Incidentally, he apparently wasn’t very happy about The Social Network (nor meeting its writer Aaron Sorkin). He told the FT that as a result of the film “If you Google me, every five minutes someone will talk about me and they will say, ‘That guy is a jerk’, or ‘He’s an asshole’ and then strangely every once in a while someone will say, ‘That guy’s so awesome’. I’m, like, Uuuggh. I was perfectly capable of doing what I wanted in my life without this.”
Unfortunately in 2005 Parker was forced out of Facebook by investors after another brush with the law. This time it wasn’t alleged copyright infringement or hacking - but because he was arrested (but not charged) with being suspected of possessing Cocaine. Whoops.
Since Facebook Parker has been a prolific investor in a number of companies, including political website Votizen and a mobile phone network called The People’s Operator that gives a chunk of its profits to charity.
But business has not always been easy. One of his less success ventures was a website called Airtime, which never really took off. He apparently said of it that “Running a start-up is like eating glass. You just start to like the taste of your own blood.”
Speaking at the Airtime launch, long before it went sour, Parker described his approach to business: “It seems like the right thing to do is tackle problems other people aren’t working on. Part of the challenge of being an entrepreneur, if you’re going for a really huge opportunity, is trying to find problems that aren’t quite on the radar yet and try to solve those.”
Turning the Tables on the Music Industry
Perhaps this desire to stay ahead informed perhaps his most interesting and presumably lucrative investment. In 2010 Parker foresaw the end of individual MP3 purchases and a move towards subscription services for many digital goods, and put $15m into what was then a company with around 10 million users. Spotify.
He also joined the company board and in what must have been some brilliant irony, he was put in charge of negotiating with Universal and Warner, two of the largest record labels, ahead of the company’s US launch. So the man who had destroyed the old music business model through the illegal trading of MP3s was now the man they had to negotiate with in order to gain access to Spotify’s lucrative platform, which could - ironically - end music piracy once and for all. Imagine being in that meeting.
Spotify now has 70m users worldwide, including 10m paying subscribers.
What seems to persist is that despite his success, Parker sees himself as an outsider figure. In 2011 he told the New York Times that “At every point I am besieged by people who would like me to conform to some social norm of whatever sort of social group they expect me to be a part of, I never have any identification with these social groups”.
Ultimately, Parker appears to be the same nerd he was when he was spending all of that time on computers as a teenager. In 2013 he married his wife, Alexandra Lenas, in a Lord of the Rings themed wedding. Seriously.
Apparently the wedding cost $10m to stage (one ninth of the cost of the Fellowship of the Ring film), and caused a tonne of environmental damage to the Big Sur coastline in California. But of course, as a Maverick Sean Parker didn’t just pay the fine and stay quiet. As part of the settlement when the California Coastal Commission sued him, he created a beach mapping app for the agency.
Parker may have not always worked within the law, but his maverick approach appears to have ultimately paid off.
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Image Credit: Kmeron (Flickr), modified