Remember That Thing Called, Uh, Napster?

Well, Napster seemed like a good idea at the time. And shortly after Bertelsmann announced it was forming a strategic alliance with Napster (*correction), it seemed like a great idea.

Napster usage rocketed through the roof, as people who had never downloaded music before were burning CDs as if free copyrighted music were going out of style.

And then it did go out of style. Napster usage, once a force to be reckoned with, is now barely a blip on the Web radar screen. Bertelsmann finds itself linked with a brand name that people have used up and thrown away.

In short, it’s over for Napster as we know it. Yes, Bertelsmann is still aligned with the technology and the brand name. The technology it can use. The brand name might as well be put up for sale on eBay.

Shell of Former Self

Napster now has an establishment chief executive officer, a former Bertelsmann exec with whom analysts say record label execs will be comfortable doing lunch.

Napster has a new plan for making money, something the old Napster probably never would have done much of, and a new plan for being a legal and above-board company.

So what’s wrong with that? Nothing. It’s just not what people have come to expect when they think of Napster.

What’s most ironic, however, is that the great run-up in usage of the file-swapping site probably did more harm than good in the long run.

Everybody Swap

For a while, Napster was an underground phenomenon, and then, due largely to media attention, it burst into the light. Friends of mine who didn’t know MP3 from U2 were suddenly boasting about their 1,200-song libraries and how they left their machine on 24/7 so their good friends in Pakistan and Ireland could copy their digital copies.

An informal poll of a half-dozen of those same friends in recent days found that not one had been on Napster for a month or more before it suspended operations in early July.

Some say last winter was the last time they swapped actively, which matches up with estimates showing a plunge in usage between February and June. The supply of good songs dried up, they said.

But more than that: The thrill was gone.

Illicit Pride

Maybe it was the impending fees that scared them off, though they all say that wasn’t it. More likely it was the legitimization of what they felt was a modestly illicit but, as they insist to a person, perfectly legal and moral pastime.

It’s like your parents offering you a beer when you’re 17. It just doesn’t taste the same as the one you drank with your friends at the dark, dead-end road on the outskirts of town.

In a way, Bertelsmann might have been better off if Napster usage had never taken off the way it did. If it could have brought Napster out into the light on its own, it might have been able to pull off what now will be an incredibly difficult feat.

It’s (Not) Alive

Now Bertelsmann has to help create a new Napster while bringing the old one back from the dead at the same time. That’s a task that Dr. Frankenstein wouldn’t envy.

Napster was a leader, of course. Parts of its technology will be the basis for an entire new industry.

But it won’t be an industry that Napster users will recognize. And it probably won’t be one they’re interested in being a part of either.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

*Editor’s Correction Note: In the original version of this article, we reported that Bertelsmann owns Napster. In fact, Bertelsmann does not own Napster, but has a strategic alliance with Napster to develop Napster’s membership service.


  • My biggest concern is how Napster supports recording AM atuar individuals, which have just as much right to be available in a peer-to-peer enviornment.
    I sent a email inquiring about this to several of the addresses on napster’s web site, and got no answer. None. Zero. I may download the software. I may wait until it is clear that this issue is resolved. I currently share via HTTP.. mostly posts in my livejournal.
    But I have as much right to share – to be allowed to ‘transmit’ – as anyone.
    I’m concerned Napster (now owned by the people it was helping us fight), if accepted, may kill the Napster dream – a network where anyone who can author, can send out into the great black timeless void that is peer-to-peer networking.. back up their content, the notes of their souls, in the hopes that somewhere, somewhen, the people who like it happen to listen to it.
    I don’t want peer to peer because of the big-label, big-name content.
    I want it because of me.. and Big Spoon, a local band I like who aren’t signed to any label.
    You can do that now, you know. You can create.. and yes, even publish – content without being affiliated with a label.
    So Napster better be open about accepting AM atuar content – and they better have a clear position on their page stating this soon – or I’ll never use them.
    Just what I needed, another way for the labels to censor (and exploit) the artists. Thanks, but no thanks, Napster.

  • As a “former” Napster user, I read your article with great interest.

    I think you touched on a nerve, but did not quite hit it.

    I feel that it was not so much as people thought they were being trendy using this underground software, it was new, it was exciting, it was FREE.

    Then Corporate America steps in and ruins the whole game for everybody. You are either on one side or the other in regards to this “pirating”


    Yes, we feel musicians need a break and must be compensated for their art, but I always used Napster to try a new group, and see if I liked them before wasting $15.00 on a CD at the record store. If I liked the songs, I bought the music.

    Napster for me was an interesting phenomena.

    Although time has shown that the free information model is not working, and that technology companies are adopting the subscription based model, I cannot and will not be a party to this.

  • It wasn’t because it became “above-board” that Napster declined, it was because 1) threat of legal action against those doing a lot of sharing, and 2) since Napster looked like it was doomed, many moved to other sharing services. These aren’t as fast or as easy, though, so the momentum was greatly diluted. Querying a few friends of a journalist is not a good way to assess mass sentiment.

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