Ten years ago, Napster revolutionized commercial music by - we're all grownups, let's call a spade a spade - democratizing piracy.
Without doubt, consumers in 1999 needed better access to music. They needed the opportunity to preview full tracks, to pick and choose songs from an album and to have instant gratification through online downloads. And 10 years later, consumers still have all those lovely perks. Napster ate it (thanks, Metallica!), but Kazaa sprang from its ashes. Then there was Limewire and its cadre. Due props to Apple for monetizing the system as it stood when the iTunes store came on the scene, but users are now ridiculously entitled about what kinds of readily available (a.k.a. easily stolen) files they are willing to pay for and their justifications for stealing media. Yet musicians, as much as they've tried to adapt, are still getting screwed by the Internet and their fans.
Editor's note: This story is part of a series we call Redux, where we'll re-publish some of our best posts of 2009. As we look back at the year - and ahead to what next year holds - we think these are the stories that deserve a second glance. It's not just a best-of list, it's also a collection of posts that examine the fundamental issues that continue to shape the Web. We hope you enjoy reading them again and we look forward to bringing you more Web products and trends analysis in 2010. Happy holidays from Team ReadWriteWeb!
Napster CEO Says Consumers Needed Free Music, Control
On the Napster blog CEO, Chris Gorog, wrote yesterday, "The original Napster hadn't thought through how to protect artists' rights... Napster was about putting the control into consumers' hands so they could find virtually any song they could think of."
That kind of thinking makes me twitch. I love users. I am a user. And yes, I've illegally downloaded my fair share of tunes over the years. (Sorry, Journey, but the road trip karaoke sessions would've been meaningless without "Don't Stop Believing".)
However, consumers neither need nor deserve control over content they did not create.
Illegal downloads have been said by many to stimulate sales; the Radiohead album Kid A is often cited as a case in point. But when users are downloading media as a substitute for actually purchasing it, the paradigm hurts musicians far more than it helps. I would venture to speculate that in P2P ecosystems, users get the glory and commercial musicians get the hard knocks. Users have dozens of ways - P2P, YouTube, a bajillion file-sharing sites - to share music that profit the musicians themselves little or not at all.
But where are the online tool kits for the thousands of working musicians - often independent of record labels' heavy duty promotional machines - who live and die by their ability to promote and sell their songs?
Napster introduced a single-edged paradigm: free content for users at musicians' and labels' expense.
What has the Internet done for musicians and labels lately?
Napster Worked Actively Against Musicians, and No One Worked (Well) With Them
Napster spent the first part of this decade showing complete disregard for the promotional and sales needs and wants of musicians. Can you imagine what the musical online landscape would look like if they had seen the copyright wars as an opportunity rather than a legal problem? What would have happened if they had invested that time and money in creating a workable solution for getting users to pay for content? If they'd worked with bands to create and market non-audio, extracurricular content for fans? If they'd been creative instead of passive-aggressively litigious?
Here's what happened to musicians working online since 1999: MySpace.
MySpace, a tragic tale of clunky interfaces, slow fan-finding, spammy marketing tools, confusing events organization, bad media players and no revenue.
While consumers were rejoicing in the newfound glut of free tracks, working musicians (as distinguished from lolling-about-in-the-Playboy-Mansion-grotto musicians), especially the independent ones, had to struggle with the most time-consuming, noisy promotional channel possible. And when a challenger sprung up (Facebook, duh) to take that channel's place, the musicians were homeless because the challenger included no music-related tools.
What's the Future Look Like from the Napster P.O.V.?
Currently, our musician friends are struggling to craft cohesive online marketing and sales strategies from a patchwork of odds and ends.
Gorog examines the current landscape of a la carte online music stores (such as iTunes) and streaming media sites (such as Pandora), concluding, "No service has cracked the nut and figured out how to create a profitable business model." What's his company's solution? "With Napster's new offering introduced on May 18, we believe we bring the best of both worlds together. Five bucks each month gets you 5 MP3s" plus streaming audio.
Let us introduce a long, thoughtful pause in honor of Napster's $5-for-5 subscription plan, which is as unoriginal as it is a bad deal. It's a mashup of two models that Gorgog just stated didn't work, and when compared to Emusic's and other sites' subscription plans (about $12 a month gets you about 30 MP3s) and Last.fm/Imeem/Pandora's free streaming offerings, it seems very financially stupid - especially considering that Napster introduced the now commonly held expectation that all this media should be free. Gorog states he sees a future of subscription plans for unlimited, on-demand music. But again, this is a probably not a paradigm that will profit bands.
It used to be that record labels were in charge of screwing musicians over (click the link for a classic article by producer Steve Albini). Now, that task has passed to the fans themselves, with special thanks to the developers who focus on illegal file-sharing over usable platforms for musicians and consumers alike.
In the coming days, we'd like to address the concerns of and online tools for working/commercial musicians. We're aware of a few good ones, but we encourage you brilliant RWW commenter-types to leave your thoughts - and pointers to musician-friendly startups - below. We've got a cabal of techie-musician-hybrid dudes just waiting to beta test them.