And The Beat Goes On Print
News/Features - Technology
Written by Robert Jackson Jr.   
Tuesday, 05 February 2002 18:00
Revolutionaries seldom survive long enough to see their visions realized. Crispus Attucks found this out in 1770. Attucks became the first casualty of the American Revolution when he was shot and killed in what became known as the Boston Massacre. Although Attucks was credited as the leader and instigator of the event, debate raged for more than a century whether he was a hero and a patriot or a rabble-rousing villain.

When Napster issued its own “shot heard ’round the world” by popularizing peer-to-peer digital-music file-sharing, it became a hero of a different sort to millions of digital-music lovers – and an instant rabble-rousing villain to the five major music labels (Sony, EMI, BMG, Warner, and Universal) and a few artists such as Metallica. At its peak, Napster had 80 million registered users who downloaded 3 billion songs a month, all for free. After well-documented legal battles, the major music labels succeeded in crippling Napster to the point that the service shut down last summer to iron out snafus in software designed to comply with legal-judgment stipulations.

Last month Napster announced that it was back in business – sort of. The new Napster will offer a mixture of free songs (basically songs you don’t care for, or tunes from artists you’ve never heard of) and pay tracks from independent labels such as Vitaminic, Matador, and Beggars Banquet.

If you’re looking for popular music from major labels, it might not happen anytime soon. Since Napster closed, the major record labels have launched online music Web sites of their own: Musicnet, operated by EMI, BMG, and Warner with RealNetworks; and Pressplay, from Sony and Universal. Consumer reviews have been tepid at best. The services, priced around $10 a month, restrict the users from downloading music from their computer to a portable MP3 player or burning music on a CD.

The new version of Napster will offer 50 downloads per month for a price in the range of $5 to $10. Instead of trading unprotected MP3s of popular music as before, users of the new Napster will be swapping .nap files, playable only on the desktop of the computer on which the software is installed. Some artists will have the option of having unprotected, unrestricted music offered online, but these are usually fledgling artists who need the exposure.

It’s unsettling that the majority of music being offered is hard rock; the diversity that was the cornerstone of the old Napster is gone. If you are looking for hip-hop and rap, your best bet (although it is far from ideal) is to log on to Rapstation.com; it has several hundred artists offering free, unrestricted downloads, but the musicians are mostly new, unproven, and raw.

I predict that Napster has pretty much played out. Music buyers, like four-year-olds, are a fickle lot. They might be slaves to the rhythm but are loyal only to themselves. The new Napster is in the unenviable position of not only competing with the old Napster but with all the Napster clones, such as Madeformusic.com, Aimster.com, and Bearshare.com, all basically free and much better than the old Napster anyway. Bethany K., a former Napster user, swears by Bearshare.com: “I had over 2,000 songs that I downloaded from Napster, but since it went down I’ve switched to Bearshare.com and have downloaded another 1,500 songs. Do I feel bad? Nope, not at all. Napster was good, but the Napster we knew is not the Napster we have. It’s a paid service where you can’t even take the music from the computer. What’s to love about that?”

She makes a good point. Why would anyone agree to pay for restricted music when they can have unrestricted music for free? And why agree to restrictions on music you own? If you go to any record store and purchase a CD, that is, in effect, your music. You can copy it to a tape or burn it on a CD. It would be your legal right to transfer that music onto the format of your choice. If you purchase a song via, say, Pressplay, why must you be restricted to listening to the song only on your computer? Shouldn’t that song be as transportable as a song you purchase at Best Buy?

Until the major music labels allow total control over purchased music regardless of where the purchases originate, they’ll continue to have piracy problems. This revolution will not be won in the courts; people like Bethany K. can’t be sued into compliance. And going after Napster clones is a flawed strategy and a losing proposition. It’s almost like that children’s arcade game, the one in which the gopher comes out of a hole and you smack it on the head with a mallet. As soon as you hit one gopher, another one pops up. Then another one. Then another one. The game stops only when you run out of time for your quarter. Since lawyers charge considerably more than quarters for their time, it’s a good bet that the “sue them into submission” strategy won’t last long.

Robert Jackson Jr. is the President of Deep River Media, a local Internet consulting company that focuses on Internet marketing strategies for small- to medium-sized businesses. To comment on this article, you can e-mail Robert at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .