NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON - NAPSTER. Does a paid-for Napster spell the end of sharing on the net? It's make or break time for Napster now users have to pay, Alasdair Reid reports

The Napster story is clearly a modern morality tale, one that tells

you all you need to know about what sort of debris is produced when old

and new worlds collide.



It is a yarn about trailblazers, anarchists and visionaries and what

happens when they run up against the reactionary forces of corporate

culture as personified by ... er, rock and roll bands. Such as those

buttoned-down, anally retentive suits Metallica, and those

career-conscious merry pranksters U2.



It was Metallica (career retail units shifted: 80 million), you will

remember, who led the legal charge against Napster and the whole concept

of the digital music sharing community.



The legal shenanigans and corporate manoeuvres have rumbled on in often

surreal fashion for more than a year now - and if you ever doubted the

surreal nature of this story, look no further than last week's events,

when a certain Konrad Hilbers became Napster's new chief executive.



Hilbers was, until this appointment, a senior executive at the

Bertelsmann-owned BMG Entertainment, one of the "big five" record label

groups - and BMG, like the rest of the big five, still has an active

lawsuit against Napster, citing copyright infringement. Even more

bizarre, though, is the fact that since October last year Bertelsmann

has actually been a strategic business partner of Napster, helping it

move to a new business model which, it is hoped, will keep everyone

happy.



With Hilbers at the helm that model will be implemented as soon as

possible, probably within the next month. As expected it will be

subscription-based, but not, as many predicted, a pay-per-play system.

"It will be a membership-based service for which users will pay a flat

monthly fee," a spokesperson told Campaign last week.



A victory for the artist, creative rights and common sense? Are we to

celebrate the fact that the music industry will no longer be ripped off

by internet pirates? And what will it actually mean for Napster? Does

this guarantee its future or ensure its demise?



Napster is not the only digital music sharing community in the world,

merely the most prominent. Then there are those who argue that this

isn't really about the music business at all. What we're seeing here is

round one of a life-or-death struggle for the very soul of the

internet.



As Hank Barry, the previous chief executive of Napster, told a Senate

Judiciary Committee hearing in July 2000, the internet was devised as a

way of sharing information among equals. He said: "The commercial use of

the net for media purposes abandoned this structure. Instead, internet

companies adopted the broadcasting model, with large centralised

computers serving information to the consumer's PC as if it were a TV

receiver. Serving, not sharing, became the dominant approach."



Napster is where ideology and consumer demand have met most forcefully

on the internet. Music accounts for a large chunk of the disposable

income of the web's early adopters - the same people who disagree most

violently with the notion of any form of paying for content on the

internet.



The advertising community has an ambiguous attitude to some of these

issues. It wants to be hip but it also wants a manageable business model

to emerge here. "Let's be honest," one new-media agency source says.

"Napster will lose its audience. There are alternatives. They may not be

so reliable but they are there."



Barrie Cree, a director of Zenith Interactive Solutions, isn't so sure:

"The market will grow with the emergence of a new generation of MP3

players.



At the moment the larger machines have five or six gigabyte drives and

can carry the equivalent of 150 albums' worth. The smaller ones offer

portability. They basically hang round your neck. The next generation

will combine both compactness and capacity. More widespread delivery

technology will increase the demand for downloads. So it will be

interesting to see what Napster's pricing policy will be. Will it be low

enough? If it is, then people will say 'fair enough'. Knowing the

industry, they'll price it high."



There's a complex combination of factors at play here. For instance,

it's only the early adopters who have the technical expertise to

download from sources other than Napster. Nick Suckley, the managing

director of Beyond Interactive, says: "The more advanced people are

always going to go off and do what they do. But this is about Napster

going more mainstream and finding a way in which it can survive."



Nigel Sheldon, the managing partner of m digital, agrees with much of

that but he also believes that there is a middle way. He says: "Maybe

it's not just about paying or not paying for content. Maybe it's about

interested parties underwriting certain types of content - regarding it,

for instance, as a promotional overhead. I really don't think there's

any simple way of looking at this."



But when push comes to shove will the new-look, neutered Napster

actually have the support of the ad industry? Of course. The advertising

industry is, after all, the home of weekend rebels. Advertisers would

clearly like to see the emergence of a mainstream, accessible download

source that is more of a media owner than an anarchist collective.



As Cree says: "The first thought of advertisers is that it will be of

interest if there is a big enough audience there. The audience is young

and into music, obviously - and you can argue that that audience is well

catered for on the web but this is an appropriate environment in which

to target them. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Napster and other

similar sites are well-used - and you can envisage specific targeting

opportunities."



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