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A Look at Napster - Past and Present

By Edited Jan 13, 2016 1 2

Napster has a rich history and will likely be remembered as one of the most controversial websites on record. Its innovative and technological ideas were, at the time, groundbreaking, but that's not what it will be best remembered for. It's probable Napster will primarily be recalled for its popularity during its early years and the huge ethical controversies and legal complications it created not too long after its birth.

Technology has always been a thorn in the foot for the music industry, an industry that never really prepared to embrace tech and use a valuable window of opportunity when it arose. But I digress...

While the music industry was busy trying to hold onto its outdated business model, Napster took that window of opportunity and, in the process, took intellectual property conflicts to an entirely new level.

Napster's Past

The history behind Napster is interesting because it was pioneering on many levels. Developed in the late 1990s by two young men named Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, the duo saw potential with peer-to-peer software and music sharing. They decided to create a niche market for this idea. Their intention was to eliminate the difficulties in conducting searches to find available downloads and provide a platform for music lovers to share their libraries; it truly revolutionized file sharing.

Keep in mind, this was at a time where the Internet was open to the public, but many had not yet jumped on the proverbial bandwagon. WiFi and web-enabled mobile devices were still a long ways off...it was a different time. People weren't really thinking about copyright issues or long-term repercussions, many were caught up in the "coolness" factor of what the Internet could do (and little did they know just how powerful it would grow to be).

With Napster, people no longer had to spend hours emailing one song at a time to their friends on their sluggish dialup Internet connections, uploading a few songs to a website, or searching for websites which had the downloads they were hoping to find. Napster provided a handy platform with a directory of music for tons of "friends" to share music simultaneously.

Teens sharing a song
Credit: By SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget (Flickr: Teens sharing a song) [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Upon its materialization millions of users discovered the site, signed up and enjoyed the mass distribution of free music. Launched in 1999, by March of 2000, Napster had 20 million users. A few months later, its user base tripled. Proponents viewed it as a cool way to get new music for free and likened it to dubbing a CD for a friend.

It was likely one of the most popular websites of its time as Internet users flocked to it to contribute their own files and delighted in the ability to download all the trendy, "old-school" and hard to find music from others. On Napster one could find all sorts of recordings, it was a virtual music playground. During its height, Napster boasted 60 to 70 million users exchanging files.

P2P sharing
Credit: Credit: ClkerFreeVectorImages/Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

The music industry and several individual musicians quickly discovered what was going on and took Napster to court for violating intellectual property laws. Subsequently, a long controversial legal battle ensued with many popular musicians either getting involved or speaking out. Metallica was one very vocal band in its distaste about Napster and music piracy in general and is probably the best-known artist associated with fighting for intellectual property rights.

Due to copyright infringement issues, the courts ultimately ruled against Napster and determined the company was in violation of the law. After several court battles, the file-sharing service and its practices were ultimately halted. Napster was shut down.

After the legal issues were settled and Napster was no longer able to conduct business the way it had been, it would no longer exist with its founders, nor would it ever be the same. Eventually, the company ended up in bankruptcy in 2002. The summation of the court case revamped the era of open file sharing and Napster's assets were put out to auction later that year. The models for music sharing have changed significantly since the Napster litigation.

The Next Chapter

After Napster was shut down upon conclusion of court proceedings it changed hands and the business was eventually bought by a company named Roxio. Roxio overhauled it into a fee-based model where subscribers could legally purchase music to listen to or download.

Since its rebirth as a legal downloading site, it has never really been able to recapture the early magic it possessed in its heyday.  Many competitors joined the market, i.e. iTunes, and Napster sat alongside many other companies in a highly competitive environment. In 2006, it had 500,000 members, which is significantly lower than the multi-millions it had during its glory days. In 2008 it had inched up to 700,000 members. It appeared improbable Napster would ever truly regain the enchantment it once possessed.

In 2008 Best Buy became the next owner of Napster, purchasing it for $121 million. Although, its plans for the music service seemingly didn't pan out as it hoped. Fast-forward to 2011 and Rhapsody became the next owner, buying its subscriber base and other assets. It then got to work rebranding the once popular Napster. 

In 2011, Rhapsody purchased Napster from Best Buy. No cash was reportedly exchanged, but the electronics giant is said to have received a minority stake in Rhapsody. The new owner went to work on rebranding Napster. Fast-forward a few more years and the big question is, can this brand recapture the glory?

Napster/Rhapsody logo
Credit: By PR Rhapsody Europe (Napster) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Napster Today

Will Napster maintain its presence on the Internet or will it ultimately fall into oblivion only to be remembered for its past? The way it was originally heading, it seemed to be the latter, but did the 2011 purchase of Napster change its direction?

When visiting the Napster website today, it no longer contains the presence of community and interaction the old site appeared to have had back in the day; the website is in itself appears to give the basic information and services and does run a blog.  It appears to be but a mere branch off the Rhapsody website.

According to a July 2015 Music Business Worldwide article, Napster and Rhapsody reached the three million legal paying subscribers milestone with a tagline that said, “There’s a headline a lot of people thought they’d never see.” 9

Indeed. Considering all the negative publicity and legal proceedings Napster has been associated with over the years. This was noted to be the fastest growth period in its 13th year history – and it happened in the 12-month period between summer 2014 - 2015.  The subscriptions were up 50 percent. 

Not only are subscriptions up, but it seems Rhapsody has crafted a few new deals. In November 2015 Napster went live in Canada with online streaming for a fee and some early promotional deals. Also, the company partnered the “new” Napster with Nintendo. On Dec. 16, 2015 Nintendo of Europe announced the deal, outlining a new app that would be available on Wii U. The app is free for 30 days and then costs $9.99 a month.

Will a broadening and rebranding strategy work? It'll be interesting to see if and how long the brand itself survives over the long-term.  The floodgates Napster opened in its early days have been shuttered (at least by legitimate business), but there is a lot of competition in cyberspace and more companies jumping into the entertainment-streaming business all the time.

What does the future hold for Napster? Time will tell.

[ Related Reading: What Happened to Limewire? ]



Jan 12, 2016 10:18am
Good one, Leigh, and a nice look at the thorny issue of internet copyright
Jan 13, 2016 1:20pm
Thanks so much Lesley. I was surprised to learn that Napster is still around, I thought they sort of faded away after a couple of purchases.
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