February 09, 2005

Napster To Go - Here We Go Again

The new Napster To Go service seems to be a hot potato these days. After posting their initial attack the Register received a load of letters both for and against the service. Wierd thing; most people either love it or hate it. And especially the haters have a tendency to declare that "as I dislike Napster, as long as it doesn't suit my needs, it must be a trash product". This post is for them.

On Napster vs. iTunes

It has become exceedingly popular to compare Napster to iTunes. As far as I can see it the basic Napster product is close to identical to iTunes. There is no subscription and no music. Then you can add either your own CDs to the library, or choose to buy music off the online stores of either Napster or iTunes. Prices are more or less the same. Napster sells WMA whereas iTunes sells AAC. It is a matter of taste, and is most likely heavily influenced by the MP3-player you own. iTunes goes with iPod, Napster with the rest.

On top of the basic media center Napster has two subscription services; "Napster Subscription" and "Napster To Go Subscription". The former allows you to stream/download as much music as you desire, but you are limited to play it on a set of three machines with Napster installed. No burning. No portable devices. Napster To Go takes away the last limitation for a 50% increase in the subscription fee. For both subscriptions your music is gone if you stop paying.

Exactly that last sentence is the core of the debate. The music goes away. You don't own it, you merely rent it. For many that is unacceptable. Fine. It is all about how you listen to music. If you are a collector that likes to have a set of CDs in a shelf, for you to use for the rest of your life then this is not the product for you. (You'd probably go out and buy the physical CD in the first place, so this debate is not really about you.) And yes, there is a limitation to what you can do with the music. You can't burn it (legally), and you can't move it freely around.

On Investment

In the long run it is also a question about return on investment. Josh Lewis has created a Napster & iTunes Cost Calculator after his critical article on Napster. Josh's model isn't all too bad, but it forgets a few things; with Napster To Go you have a rapid accent into music heaven, the entire online catalog is available to you immediately. With iTunes you own nothing, and have to buy album by album, only after many years you reach the level where you own the same amount of music that you would keep in a decent Napster subscription library. AND; if you love music you are most likely to buy one album (or equivalent) pr. month, and that roughly adds up to what a monthly subscription costs. So, as long as you pay "forever" you will have infinite music availability "forever" too. For me personally it is a non-issue.

If you love music you will never consider to sell your music collection; hence it is not really an investment. (You can't sell your iTunes music anyways.) Ok, maybe the ones who come after you will look at it that way, but if they buy music as well then their average montly cost will probably be in the same range as a subscription.

In the end...
... it is all about feelings. I don't need to own my music. I love to browse the catalog, dig out random links between artists and then see what I find. There is no risk, no dangerous bill at the end of the month. It is pure fun. There are downsides, and I accept those. For me this is the product. For those who wants more freedom it might not be the product. Maybe buying the tracks from Napster/iTunes will do what you want, but even those tracks have limitations. Maybe you have to go out and buy the piece of plastic.

BUT; even if a product isn't for you doesn't mean it is a bad product and anyone that buys it is stupid. That is simply too narrow minded. I don't know how many people use the Napster subscription services, but I am a very happy user, and will continue to use the services as long as they are around. If they one day disappear I will try to find another service, I am sure one will be around.

Posted by ludvig at February 9, 2005 11:14 PM | TrackBack

Great article, Lars.

For all the flak Napster gets regarding its "rental" business model, and now the "252 CD burn" hack, it's actually getting good reviews from users.

Music subscription services in general are great for new music discovery. I was blown away by 7 bands within the first three weeks of using Rhapsody, which is incredible. Though I'm not currently a subscriber, the move to mobile devices is making me reconsider...

Subscriptions are great for independent music, as they give more exposure to bands trying to get their music out; listeners are more willing to experiment. And that's good for the music industry in general, which could use a shot in the arm. I'm sick of manufactured pop.


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