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.
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.
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.
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.