Saturday, June 6, 2009

Napster: Reloaded

In the beginning, there was Old Napster. It was 1999, broadband was new, and music-swapping had just EXPLODED onto the scene via a peer-to-peer application invented by a college student who coined it's name based on his kinky hair (don't get me started). Those were the good ole days. Search for a song, click on it, download, and listen. If your online life began after 2001, this music model should still sound familiar? It is identical to iTunes. Except that your wallet ends up $0.99 lighter for each click these days. But clearly with the popularity of iTunes and other online music stores, this is how the public wants to consume music. Think for a moment if iTunes had come to market in 1998, BEFORE Napster? In any case, it did not. And instead of innovating, the music industry branded it's customers as thieves and shut down Old Napster in the summer of 2001.

But this was not the end of Napster. The brand name was so strong that it re-emerged a few years ago as a legitimate music store. And with distribution rights from three of the Big Four music companies, Napster had a decent catalog. But it still lagged behind iTunes and Rhapsody, and new competitors like Amazon and Walmart. Last year, electronics retailer Best Buy purchased Napster and slowly transformed its identity. Last month, the new and improved Napster finally re-opened its online doors.



And I have to say that I'm seriously impressed! The highlight of their new service is on-demand streaming; all you can eat for only $5/month. I am fully aware that streaming music is worthless to those of you who currently who use iPods and other MP3 players. I happen to have a home-theater PC, so streaming Napster throughout my home on my 5.1 surround-sound system is actually a perfect solution, but I recognize the limitations of not being able to take the music with me on the road. Streaming music ties you to a PC, and PC's are old-school. But I would also argue that iPods and MP3 players are old-school. The new hotness is smart mobile phones with unlimited data plans. IPhones and Blackberries can currently stream music from recommendation services like Pandora and Slacker. And by this fall, the full range of web-music services like Napster will be available on most smartphones via a new mobile phone browser called Skyfire. In short, I will soon be able to listen to any of Napster's song catalog on-demand from ANY location where I can get a mobile phone signal. For only $5/month!!! This is GAME-CHANGING for music lovers!

Now, a few caveats. Napster's catalog is not nearly as complete as iTunes or even Amazon. Some albums and artists simply aren't available. While others only have 30-second previews of certain tracks loaded, rather than the entire song. This was certainly a sticking point for me, but the value for $5/month (I keep coming back to that) is still overwhelming. Most of the music that I was looking for was available for streaming and within a couple of minutes of signing up I was listening to Aesop Rock, Akrobatik, Atmosphere, Blackalicious, Mos Def, MURS, Tame One, as well as many more of my favorites. I should also give full disclosure: I have a business relationship with a subsidiary of Napster's parent company. That being said, just trust me! The new Napster is awesome and you should try it! If it wasn't, I would simply be silent since whether Napster is successful or not does not directly affect my business relationships. Try it, and let me know what you think!