Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Napster to Go goes nowhere

Much ado over the recently introduced Napster To Go service, the first large-scale roll out of a subscription-based business model for the music industry. After the spectacle of a multi-million dollar marketing campaign focused on exuding a sense of superiority to Apple's iTunes and iPod, the dust has settled and we are beginning to see this service for what it really is.

First came this press release from Parks Associates which states the obvious: the average consumer doesn't understand the value in the music subscription model. Consumers have owned music for over a century and can't identify a tangible value in an intangible product such as digital music. This is too bad because the subscription model will eventually take over the music industry. This could be at least ten years away, maybe more if the corporations running the industry keep screwing up digital music.

Why, you might ask, can't a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate pull off a great subscription service while the technology to do so is freely available? The answer: great technology requires open access to be effective. Napster to Go, like all corporate digital music services before it, is based on restricting the listener's access to music. Their subscription service is essentially an illusion of free access to music. This Washington Post article points out that the service is wrought with restrictions, and these restrictions will deter most consumers from adopting Napster to Go. These restrictions include:

  • You only have access to your music library if you continue to pay the $15/mo. subscription fee. You essentially lose ownership of all the music you purchased access to when you miss your first bill.
  • Napster only works on Windows with Media Player 10. Though the same could be said of Apple's exclusivity, they have a positive brand identity and creative interface design while the average consumer is mystified and frustrated by the Windows OS.
  • You can only access digital music files on up to three computers or devices.

    Most importantly, the $15/month subscription fee works out to $180 a year, roughly 14-18 CDs. The average music consumer spends half this amount on CDs per year. These consumers would much rather own a tangible product than pay for temporary access to an intangible product. Though this attitude will change as more listeners understand digital music, Napter's subscription model is unsustainable and too restricted to appeal to a wide user base.

    As if these restrictions were bad enough for Napster's business, news broke yesterday that 'hackers' had already found a way to bootleg music from Napster to Go. Of course, this is the same 'stream ripping' we've seen since the advent of digital music. It's not a major threat to corporations because the ripping process takes more technical know-how than the average music consumer.

    So what's my verdict on Napster to Go? It's just another case of the corporate elite using technological innovation to restrict access to music rather than provide greater access. But Napster is wasting time they don't have and losing ridiculous amounts of money. Napster's $2.4M Super Bowl ad drew five times as much traffic to rival Apple's website than their own. Whatever 'buzzworthy' quality was held in the Napster brand is quickly draining back into the underground software development community. It won't be long before this community develops the next 'Napster' and turns the industry upside down once more.

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