At the ripe old age of ten, the current incarnation of the Napster music service scarcely resembles its former bawdy self. If the original Napster was a loud, raucous garage band made up of drunken college students, the present offering is what happens when the band sobers up, signs to a major label, and starts house hunting.
Long gone are the days of free-flowing music from the vine of central servers. Today’s Napster requires a grown-up kind of commitment: a credit card and a monthly subscription. It also faces stiff competition; while Napster morphed from its lawless larval stage to a dues-paying music service, consumers in search of free content have had their pick of surviving peer-to-peer applications and torrent sites that more than make up for the loss of the original rogue site.
The current economic climate makes music an even tougher sell. In today’s economy, how do you compete with free? While it may seem counterintuitive, some experts see consumers’ insatiable appetite for free content as an opportunity rather than a cause for concern. Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and Editor-in-Chief at Wired ignited a fiery debate among the technology and entertainment community recently when he published an article touting free content as the key to earning income in the digital age. His article, titled, "Free! Why $0.00 Is The Future Of Business," argues that when digital content approaches zero marginal cost to distribute, the more you give away for free, the more you can sell to the small segment of consumers who are willing to pay for premium content.
For today’s Napster, that means that along with the unlimited streaming capability that a monthly $5.00 subscription fee buys, the listener also scores five “free” digital downloads with no strings attached. For some artists, Anderson’s scenario translates into giving away the entire album for free in hopes that fans will pay for concert tickets or limited access to live streaming video from the road. What’s clear at this point in the evolution of the music business is that there is no clear business model. In the internet age, selling recorded music has become as much of an art as making the music itself.
While the music industry has been on the front lines of the battle to convert freeloaders into paying customers, their efforts have been watched closely by other digitized industries—newspapers, book publishing and Hollywood among them—who are hoping to staunch their own bleeding before it’s too late. And if the music market is any indication of how consumer expectations will evolve elsewhere, the demands for free content will extend far beyond the mere cost of the product.
In the decade since Napster’s launch, digital music consumers have demonstrated their interest in five kinds of “free” selling points:
Cost (zero or approaching zero),
Portability (to any device),
Mobility (wireless access to music),
Choice (access to any song ever recorded) and
Remixability (freedom to remix and mashup music)
All of this makes for a tall order, but if history is any guide, music consumers usually get what they want.