I signed up for a free two-week trial of Napster recently, and my trial has just ended. I decided not to continue with the service, but I was intrigued by many of the comments I read in the Napster message boards while I was there. It seems that the two main arguments of those who support Napster are that iTunes users are stupid, and that Apple doesn’t offer choice like Napster does.
I wish I was kidding about the “stupid” part, but over and over I saw messages from people claiming that it would take an especially stupid person to buy an iPod, since you’d have to spend $10,000 to fill it up. They seem to be parroting the expensive marketing campaign; Napster’s CEO said prior to its launch that, “We’re going to be communicating to people that it’s stupid to buy an iPod.” What sort of service hopes to succeed in the market by calling their potential customers stupid? Anyway, $10,000. I’m pretty sure I’ve spent that much on music in my life, but I think I’m an exception. And yet iPods are flying off the shelves! How on earth are all of these people able to afford the $10,000 it takes to fill up an iPod?
The answer is that the iPod doesn’t just accept FairPlay-encoded AAC files, but can also store and play un-encrypted AAC files as well as MP3 files, so everybody can rip and transfer their entire existing CD collection before ever buying a single track from the iTunes Music Store. For that matter, people can load their iPods up with tracks they’ve pirated, or created themselves, or downloaded for free (Apple offers four free tracks per week, and many bands have free tracks available on their websites). I won’t say that nobody is buying 10,000 tracks from the iTMS, since I remember Apple reporting one person had bought twice that many, but most people have an existing music collection.
Which leaves choice. But what do they mean by choice? The general argument seems to be that an iPod limits you to the iTunes Music Store, and the iTunes Music Store limits you to the iPod. With Napster, however, you can use one of several different portable players from several different manufacturers, and with one of those players you can use music from Napster, or Wal-mart, or some other source. That sounds pretty good, right?
But choice is really more elusive than that. There is a choice of formats: While MP3 is the standard, online stores with major-label material are offering one of three protected formats: FairPlay-encoded AAC (from Apple), encrypted WMA (from Microsoft), or ATRAC (from Sony).
There is also choice in hardware, but it is closely related to the choice in formats. Nobody’s players but Sony’s plays ATRAC songs, and nobody’s players but Apple’s play FairPlay songs, and nobody’s players but Microsoft’s play WMA songs. Well, several different hardware manufacturers sell products licensed by Microsoft, and HP and Motorola sells products licensed by Apple, but those are generally the three choices: Sony, Apple, or Microsoft.
Although a very minor point, there is also choice in software, and there just might be three people in the world to whom this really matters. I don’t know what programs support Sony’s ATRAC, but the only programs I know of that support Apple’s FairPlay are iTunes (for Mac and Windows) and VLC (with a little tweaking on non-Mac platforms, such as Linux). Microsoft’s WMA can be played with many different Windows applications, but apparently only on Windows. There is another factor in software choice, too. You can buy WMA tracks using several different software clients, each one tied to a specific vendor. Use the Napster client to buy tracks from Napster, iTunes to buy tracks from Apple, and so on. While it might at first seem like an advantage to be able to buy WMA music from more than one vendor, service restrictions tend to make that difficult, so it isn’t as much an advantage as it first appears.
There is also a choice of content. Some artists, labels, and even albums or songs are only available on one service. In my two-week trial, I didn’t find any artists that were available on Napster but not iTunes, but I did see a few “Napster exclusive” recordings, mostly live. There are also plenty of “iTunes exclusive” tracks, but unless you’ve got an extra-special hankering for one particular artist for whom you can’t find CDs as an alternative, this doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.
The biggest choice, from what I can see, is one of business model. Napster has bet everything on the idea that people want to rent music instead of buying it, while Apple stubbornly insists that people really want to own their music. There is actually a “Napster Light” service which essentially mirrors the ownership model of iTunes, the marketing for Napster focuses on the rental service. And really, since iTunes has the market locked up right now, a service is going to have to do something different to make a dent!
Head To Head
With iTunes, you pay nothing for the software, which happens to have been a popular music library program before the introduction of the iTunes Music Store. Using the iTunes software, you can browse and search and listen to 30-second samples of any song. If you want a full song, you pay 99 cents to download it and then it is yours. You can transfer it to your iPod, burn it to a CD, or share it with other computers on your home network. There are some limitations, but they are designed to affect very few people. In any case, since you can burn every track to CD and the re-import the tracks as MP3s or unprotected AAC or whatever you wish, you have real ownership of the track.
With Napster, you also pay nothing for the software, which was designed from the ground up to look and feel similar to the old Napster software, but has a few odd bugs in its “Library” section yet. They will undoubtedly be fixed soon, but they annoyed me last week. Using Napster Light, you can browse and search and listen to 30-second samples, just as with iTunes, and download a track for 99 cents for burning, just as with iTunes. The restrictions are actually a bit more restrictive, but since you can burn the track to CD, the difference doesn’t really matter.
Napster Light is so like the iTunes Music Store that it is hard to imagine someone choosing to use it on any basis other than a hardware choice. Everything Napster Light does, the iTMS does better, and the iTMS provides four free tracks every week and better organization and Audible audiobooks and Pepsi bottle promotions.
But then there is the Napster service, which is different. If you pay $9.95 every month, you can download most tracks and play them on your computer for no extra charge. You can’t burn them, but you can listen to full-length songs. If you want to put them on a WMA10-compatible portable player it will cost you an extra $5 per month, and if you want to burn them to CD, it will still cost you 99 cents per track. Also, there are still some artists, some albums, and even some songs that cannot be downloaded unless you pay the 99 cents. I noticed quite a few albums in which a single song was “Buy Only,” which would drive a complete-album freak like me pretty crazy, but I think I’m an exception in that sense. Most tracks are included in the $9.95 monthly, with the exceptions running pretty heavy in the Christian music and other sub-genres.
Listening to full-length tracks is a big advantage of Napster over iTunes, and since you get to choose the tracks, it may even be a better deal than satellite radio, which for the same price gives you lots of channels, but none you can control song-by-song. Or, since you have to choose the tracks, it may not be as good a deal as satellite radio, which for the same price gives you lots of channels which you don’t have to think about to listen to. Its all in how you look at it, I suppose.
Still, $9.95 a month to download as many songs as you want sounds like a good plan, a killer feature. So why not Napster? Because the music is rented.
What happens if you ever decide to quit paying $9.95 a month? All of the music quits working. If you’ve been a faithful customer for a year, paid $119.40 for twelve months of service, and then cancel, you end up with nothing. Just as with satellite radio, you’re paying for the right to listen, and no more. Napster, the RIAA, and Microsoft control the music.
For example, it recently came to light that Winamp, one of the pieces of software that plays protected WMA music, had a plugin called OutputStacker which would allow users to “stack” a DiskWriter plugin and convert protected WMA songs to another format, like WAV (for burning to CD) or MP3. There were several limitations, but it could be done. However, since protected WMA music is rented, not sold, they were able to solve the problem by expiring Winamp’s WMA certificate. The next time Winamp checked its certificate on the server, it was told it was expired, and it refused to play protected WMA songs. The only solution was to upgrade to a newer version of Winamp, which coincidentally contained code to disallow the use of OutputStacker and DiskWriter. If you didn’t want to upgrade Winamp, you wouldn’t be able to listen to protected WMA tracks with it. Cleverly done, I think, but a reminder that the music is rented, never sold.
My goal, when listening to music, is to own it in an unencumbered format. When I get tracks from the iTunes Music Store, I burn them to CD and then rip them back as MP3. That’s just the kind of person I am. So Napster’s service wasn’t very appealing to me, since I would still have to pay 99 cents per track to be able to burn the songs to CD. Paying $9.95 on top of that seemed of little value to me because I already have quite a large collection of music ripped from CDs I own, and can easily create a radio station of my own for free.
Also, I was frustrated by the inconsistency of the Napster experience. There often seemed to be no rhyme or reason about which songs were included for the $9.95 monthly fee. On a ten-song album, nine would be rentable, and one required an extra purchase. Or for a given artist, three albums would be buy-only, but a fourth could be rented. I realize that this isn’t Napster’s fault, but is the choice of the labels and artists, but it still drove me batty. I believe that there is value in consistency, and while Napster takes a step closer to the iTunes ideal, in that all songs can be downloaded for burning for 99 cents (unlike earlier rental models which placed restrictions even on that), it still seems uneven by comparison. Technically, there are “Album Only” tracks in the iTMS, but they all seem to be over seven minutes long, and are hard to find outside of classical choices.
Online music seems to be about the illusion of freedom, and Apple has so far managed to make that illusion seem complete, while Napster continually reminds users that they are not free, and that everything that they do is by the good graces of the labels. Perhaps that doesn’t matter to you, but it turned out to matter to me. For the most part, I’ll stick with MP3.
One More Thing
One thought struck me as I was considering whether to let the trial convert to the paid service. The RIAA has been claiming that music piracy costs them billions of dollars, right? They’ve sued individuals for thousands of dollars. But since they’re willing to accept a percentage of $119.40 per year from Napster for “unlimited” music, then clearly RIAA losses can never exceed a percentage of $119.40 per year per person, right? The RIAA argues that users who engage in music piracy would otherwise have paid cash for the CDs containing all the songs they download, but a user could as easily counter-argue that they would otherwise sign up with Napster to get access to all of the same music. The reasoning behind both arguments is flawed, since most people would do neither.
Therefore, counting the RIAA losses to piracy should be easy. Estimate the number of people engaging in music piracy, estimate the percentage of that $9.95 per month that the RIAA gets, and multiply. I bet it falls considerably short of billions of dollars.