The Digital Beat: Napster Was Meant to Die Young

February 21, 2001 12:00 AM ET

Napster is dead. Napster lives. Napster is dead again. Napster lives? Not even Keith Richards has knocked on death's door as often as the notorious N.A.P. And, frankly, all this speculation surrounding the company's fate is moot. Napster was dead long before the appeals court ruled against it last week. But music online lives on.

There was never any way for the Napster company to make a legit business model out of a service that, in the simplest terms, lets people get so much cool stuff for free. A legit Napster is an incredibly tricky thing to pull off, requiring formidable advances not only in technology (which would allow Napster to doll out royalties to artists based on downloads), but, more importantly, in human relations between the bratty dot com and the bitter old recording industry.

On the whole, the prognosis is indeed grim for Napster: the company's CEO admits that they don't have the technology now to fully roll out a subscription service; the RIAA clearly doesn't want to support such a plan; and, furthermore, the courts are lining up against Napster, saying that, yes, building a business based on allowing people to swap copyright protected materials is abetting a crime.

But, really, all this was fated from the start. Napster was born as a rock & roll technology, and like the greatest of rock stars, it was meant to die young. Even if, by some miracle of science and law, Napster evolves into its legit new machine, the original dream of Napster (free, instant, infinite, easily accessible music for everyone) is done. As for now, the party's still going online, but it's got all the tones of a holiday party's last call.

Of course, the party is already progressing to other bars: OpenNap, Gnutella, FreeNet and other hubs that don't even exist yet (but I'll surely be writing about them here in months to come). So far, none of these are quite as user-friendly as Napster, but they're working on it. Nevertheless, if you've got the energy and the time, I guarantee you that you can find any song you're looking for online. But that's the catch right there, isn't it? Most people don't have the energy or time. This is why Napster, which made songs so easy to find, ruled.

What to do now? For the sake of the evolution of music online, it's time to move on and take the lessons of Napster into the future. The experience has proved, among other things: there's a passionate group of music fans on the Internet; people like having instant access to songs; digital music technology is now a part of daily life; traditional radio is not satisfying millions of listeners; artists need some means of compensation in the new economy. Now the challenge is to create a new system that addresses all these points.

Within a few years, there will surely be some working solution. A place where fans can download cheesy old Triumph ballads on a whim. A place where Lars can get paid. A place where Napster, the one that hotwired it all, seems quaint.

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