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
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
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
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
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