PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Requiem for Napster
May 2001

The music industry seems to accept at last that the online world has changed and will change music distribution – and appreciation – forever. The idea that online consumers will pay $10 for a CD when they can get the music for free is both naïve …and paradoxically, now proven. Sales of CDs are up around 10% in 2000, just when everyone thought that Napster had killed the market by allowing users the ability to share for free. Don’t believe me? Look at:-

“Worldwide compact disc sales are up 7% during the first half of 2000, but industry sources say growth has been slowed by the growing problem of CD piracy.”

It’s clear that something is going on that we don’t fully understand. It’s too simplistic to suggest that Napster has provided a sampling service where users get a “trial” grade copy of the music, since most Napster offerings are CD or better quality.

One of the present problems is the lack of easily integrated mobile players – just about every PC can play MP3 files (especially with software like the fabulous MusicMatch jukebox) – but then where..? Getting music from the PC to the walkman is possible – Diamond set the ball rolling for this with the Rio. Getting MP3s to cars, the place where the most listening is done, is in its infancy - but now HiFi separates are available that will play MP3s from standard format CDs. The bad news for Metallica being that 100 MP3 tracks of 6Mbyte each with fit on a single CD rom, and 1000 on a DVD.

All that’s just simple physics – now let’s get into psychology of what’s going on. Most people would be pushed to think of 100 tunes for a “personal play list”, let alone 1000 – so part of the online opportunity/imperative is to expand the universe of everyone’s musical appreciation as far as possible. Unlike the world of TV, there appears to no equivalent to the “channel surfing” phenomenon where bored viewers flit between TV stations hoping for a momentary gratification.

The music appreciation scene operates with different dynamics, and aficionados display a degree of “oneness” with their art that can go way beyond the foot-tapping, and is otherwise unique in human experience. Nearly all music comes in attention-span chunks – even the classic works have points of reference that reset the span at regular intervals. TV/Films by their nature require a more concentrated effort that invokes altogether higher intellectual commitments. The evocative qualities of music are an indication that a direction connection has been made with a basic human sense, and this simply doesn’t happen with current video – although recent studies where people have been represented live-size at all times is showing some interesting possibilities. And “larger than life” has even more subtle psychology to explore – this is how babies and small children perceive their worlds, so who knows what basic instincts are being evoked by this type of immersive experience..? The reason for this is possibly that music hits aural senses in very nearly precisely the form of the “natural experience”, whereas video can never be fully immersive in the same way.

So how do we enhance and extract value from the process? To extract value, however, it’s necessary to insert value somewhere in the chain. Without Napster, all the online process can do is to strip logistics costs from distribution – but with Napster and the admirable MusicMatch player system, we can link with databases to provide really useful information services that support choice, and also provide users with obvious community and mentoring facilities such “other tunes that users who enjoyed this track have chosen”.

There is clear evidence that people actually enjoy the provenance of ownership of art, and attribute considerable tangible value to the experience. Why else does Christies, Sothebys etc exist…? To the pure Metallica fan, maybe a file from Napster is perceived as the aesthetic equivalent of a photocopy of the Mona Lisa ..? Something must account for the increases in CD sales. The music industry would be advised to learn what it is, before trying to slam the lid on the best market research and distribution device ever devised for any market, ever.

Napster is a perfect example of the internet’s distributed storage and processing infrastructure, managed via a central directory server. By sticking to this principle and staying away from the “global corporation passion for central control” it’s added to the potential value of the process in ways that the offline world simply cannot. One of the most dangerous things that Napster does for the Music Scene is that it highlights exactly what music is popular, and why. Sooner or later someone will be able to make a genetic fingerprint of musical appreciation trends – there is clearly a cultural factor that needs better understanding.

In combination with MusicMatch, you can see the living proof of the suspicion that only 2 or 3 tracks of any given CD are in any way “popular” – the rest are merely space fillers. Napster prunes the music industry down to size, and that’s what the professional recording artists and publishers hate so much.

Just having sat through the awesomely awful Grammy awards where the US industry fawns all over itself, and the supporting stage acts were (in my jaundiced and aged view, utter onanistic crap of the first water) , I reckon it’s way past time that the music industry got the kicking it so richly deserves. If Napster is truly off the air when you read this, might I humbly suggest that you never buy another CD from any artist or publisher that doesn’t support at least trying to find a way to understand and exploit Napster..?