It wasn’t until after my initial binge that I thought a bit more about the virtues of this service. What Napster’s ads ignore is that most people already own a significant music collection — so how many songs will they grab once they sign onto this service? How about after the first month or year? Even the most manic downloader has to slow down eventually.
Napster To Go’s $15 monthly bills, however, will keep coming due for as long as you care to listen to your downloads. And over time, those fees add up, too.
Consider this example: I have been purchasing CDs for about 20 years now, in which time I’ve accumulated about 300 of the things. At an average of $15 each, I’ve spent $4,500. Now suppose that, instead of buying those CDs, I could have opened up a Napster To Go account back in 1985. My total bill would be $3,600 and counting — and although I might have accumulated a larger, more diverse collection, I wouldn’t own any of it.
I have a hard time accepting that. At its best, music has the same lasting value as books or paintings or any other sort of meaningful art: It isn’t a disposable good that you use and then forget about. It’s something that you keep listening to and discovering new things in. When music is good, you want to know that it can’t be taken away from you.
Well, that’s one point of view. Of course, by that logic, DVD rentals are equally indefensible, and both Netflix and Blockbuster don’t add up at all. In the last five years, I’ve paid Netflix over a thousand dollars, and I have nothing on my DVD shelf to show for it. For that matter, why have I been paying HBO all these years? They don’t let me keep anything either!
Unfortunately, this half-baked analysis is getting a lot of support from other corners of the Internet. At Boing Boing, for instance, Xeni Jardin writes:
What if Napster To Go were Napster The Grocery, and milk you bought there could only be consumed from proprietary square mugs (known for sprouting holes which must be patched by the user), and the milk cartons vanished from your refrigerator shelf if you didn’t re-up your subscription next month? You’d get your milk elsewhere.
How is that different from other subscription-based services that we all know and use? I pay my cable company a monthly fee, in exchange for which I get to watch as much TV as I want on the channels I subscribe to. If I stop paying the fee, all of a sudden I can’t watch any more. If I stop paying the phone company, I can’t make phone calls any more. Yet by the logic in the original review and its supporting post, any subscription-based music service is flawed. Which is silly, because it ignores the actual cost. What if Napster To Go cost 99 cents per month for unlimited access to the entire library for the month? Would that be an acceptable deal? What if it were $1.99? If you don’t like the service, the objection has to be at least partly rooted in its price.
I did a little math based on what Rob wrote. He buys 15 CDs a year, and I suspect most of those are mainstream releases – the latest hits from big labels. I’ve been known to buy 15 CDs on a single visit, which is why I have a music collection that’s roughly five times the size of Rob’s. I’d say there are probably 400 CDs in my collection that I haven’t listened to in years and probably never will again. Some are just dated, but others were impulse buys based on an artist or a label. Sometimes those purchases work out well, but I can easily pick out a couple dozen CDs from my collection that I bought, listened to once, and quickly concluded that I had made a bad purchase. In some cases I was able to listen to individual tracks, either in a record store listening booth or in those 30–second clips on Amazon.com. But that was just enough to fool me into thinking I wanted to hear more when I really didn’t like the CD.
If I had had access to a download service where I could have sampled the entire recording first, I might well have avoided a few of those purchases. The basic Napster service is $10 a month, which lets you listen on up to three PCs without burning any CDs or transferring tracks to a music player. The Napster To Go service costs $5 a month more and adds the capability to transfer downloaded tracks to a compatible music player or a SmartPhone. I’ve got a Creative Zen Micro (love it!) and an Audiovox SMT5600 SmartPhone (love it, too!), both of which are compatible with the Napster To Go service. So I did the math: If I could have avoided one bad CD purchase every other month it would have justified the cost of the service.
I don’t think this is just a theoretical advantage. Since I’ve been using Napster To Go I’ve probably listened to three or four new CDs every week. I’ve already identified a few that I absolutely, positively don’t want to listen to again. I’ve found some gems that I went out and purchased (used, of course) so I could have them in my permanent collection. I’ve also found a few CDs that were worth a listen or two but don’t deserve a place in my permanent collection.
If I have issues with Napster To Go, it’s with the whole concept of DRM. Because I’m not purchasing the tracks I download, I’m not worried about “losing” them, as I would be with those overpriced 99–cent tracks I can download from iTunes or Napster. But the license acquisition process isn’t as smooth as it should be. Last week my PC decided to stop playing all the downloaded tracks, and it wouldn’t let me listen to or download any new ones. I spent an hour on the phone Friday with a capable Napster tech support guy who walked me through manually reconfiguring the DRM files on my PC. It wasn’t a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t want to have to explain the process to a less sophisticated user. (I asked for and got a free month’s service for the hassle.)
So, when I do the math, I see an equation that’s a little more complicated. If your music budget is limited to buying one or two hit CDs every month, and your tastes are satisfied with that much new music and no more, then fuggedaboutit. You won’t get your money’s worth out of Napster. On the other hand, if you have a broad musical tastes and an insatiable appetite for tunes, you might find Napster (or a similar, all-you-can-listen-to service like Rhapsody) worth a try. The catalog is huge and it’s fun to rummage around on indie labels or follow links to artists that are similar to those you like or to dig into a favorite artist’s older recordings. If I sample 10 new tracks every day, that’s a nickel per track (3 cents if I don’t care to transfer the tunes to my portable player) for the right to listen to a particular song all month long. That doesn’t seem like such a terrible deal, all in all.
Update: Christopher Baus has been thinking along similar lines:
I’ve used a subscription music service (Rhapsody) for 2 years, and I couldn’t be happier. I know exactly what I am paying for, and I think I am getting an insane bargain. I know I don’t own the music. That’s a silly argument. When you buy a CD you aren’t buying redistribution rights for that content. You are buying a personal license. Not much has changed here. If people actually tried the subscription services (rather than just complaining about them), I think they would see what an amazing technology and deal it really is.
He also thinks that Microsoft should release Windows Media Player for Linux!