Napster: if at first you don’t succeed, try the same thing again

[Please note: This article was originally published on on 11-Feb-2005.]

Napster is at it again. As previously announced, and hyped with overpriced advertising space on the 2005 Super Bowl, they’ve released a new version of… wait for it… a music subscription service. Yawn.

The market for subscription music is small

Regardless of what all these services try to tell you, subscription music as a personal, portable listening option is a non-starter, even several years after the first attempts to manufacture the market for it. Yes, people want to be able take their music with them. This has been proven, from as far back as 8-track tapes (and before) to cassettes and CDs to the iPod family of today. Listeners see radio as ephemeral, which it is. It is there to expose you to things you might not otherwise hear, but when money changes hands, it is still expected that permanence (as much as anything is permanent) is part of the deal. Radio, even subscription radio, is seen differently than “buying music”, which at least partially explains the popularity of iTunes Music Store.

Napster targets iPod/iTMS, misses real target

Apple’s success in the music download marketplace has made it the default target for all other music download sites. That is really no surprise. That these other sites appear to be blinded by their own desire to dethrone Apple isn’t completely unexpected either, given the emotional response everyone’s favorite fruit computer company elicits. In Napster’s case, a small revenge motive might even be forgiven, since Apple has slurped up the legitimate version of the market that the original, ground-breaking Napster created. What’s really happening, though, is that the Napsters (and the Rhapsodys, and the rest of the subscription services) have lost sight of the real prize: to make new markets and own them. There might already be ways that subscriptions might work, but why try to force the issue with the millions of people who have already expressed their preference to work on the ownership model?

Why not Napster Radio?

It seems to me that it’s suicidal to dive right into a pool of feeding sharks and try to convince them that salad is really better for them. Sure, an all-you-can-eat offer might be tempting, and you might get a shark or two to, um, bite, but the reality is that you’re just going to become chum. So it will be with Napster To Go. The lesson that iTunes is really teaching the market is to look for what people want and give it to them. In Napster’s world, that apparently meant, “Hey! We have the agreements to let people listen to whatever they want as long as they subscribe, so let’s try to weasel into people’s pockets!” rather than really thinking differently about what they could offer.

Of course, iTMS has shown that the market for subscription services for personal music portfolios is much smaller than first thought. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for subscriptions or that there aren’t cool things that could be done to eventually make subscriptions a contender in the overall portable music space. Why else would there be two high-profile satellite radio options right now? Why would there be a huge race between those companies to make portable receivers (such as the MyFi device from XM)? Imagine Napster partnering with XM to make a real To Go service that you (the subscriber) program? Imagine what could be done at that point… sure, it wouldn’t have the same cache as taking on Apple, but it could carve out a place for itself among people who are used to and inclined toward subscription services. After all, with a subscription service where the music goes away when the subscription ends, that’s all the listener is doing anyway, programming a fancy radio.

Make the interface slick, make the programming options easy to use, make the songs easy to find (either specifically or recommended based on some criteria), make the stream easy to receive, in short, make it a brainless experience, just like Apple has done on the “purchase” side of the spectrum. If Napster (and the others) are going to insist on going subscription, at least take advantage of the few strengths that option actually has and run with them.

Otherwise, they’re just going to remain chum in the water.