Napster Offers Free Music Again

It’s undeniable: Since its beginnings, Napster has shaken the music world. A renegade service that started in 1999, its 70 million members downloaded music like it was going out of style in those last weeks before it was shut down in 2001 for extreme copyright violations. By 2003, Napster had been purchased by Roxio Software (which then changed their name to Napster), and was relaunched as a paid music service.

In a move that is likely aimed just as much at recalling earlier “pirate” members as to compete with Apple’s iTunes, Napster has announced that they will again offer free music. On Google, they currently top the search listings with the heading “Napster is Free Again”.

Free Music – Legal and With Limits

Statements released by Napster tout their new move as pushing the company into the future as “the first legal digital music service to offer music fans free, on-demand listening to over two million major and independent-label tracks.”

What’s the catch? In order to keep it all legal, Napster is releasing the free tunes under an ad-supported service that streams music to their members. Streaming music is a format that Napster feels will be secure – they have stated that the streaming format cannot be copied or downloaded to another device. The final catch is that members can only listen to the “free” song five times before being prompted to pay a download fee or monthly subscription.

According to Napster, their new offer is all about the members. “Napster was born of the idea of eliminating all barriers to discovering, enjoying and sharing music and of putting the power inÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ the hands of fans,” said Chris Gorog, Napster’s chairman and chiefÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ executive. “With a vision to empower music fans in a legal environment, with an open, all-inclusive platform, we are very excited to shareÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ our new free music experience at”

According to analysts, the move is all about finances. Napster is far from leading the online music scene, falling way behind the market leader, Apple Computer’s iTunes. Currently, Napster boasts some 500,000 monthly subscribers but it continues to struggle, reporting a 16.7 million dollar loss in its latest fiscal quarter – compared to a 14.9 million dollar loss the same period a year earlier.

Napster’s Free Music vs. Streaming Radio

From big players like Yahoo! LaunchCast and AOL Radio to thousands of chat-based stations, the Internet is teeming with free music for your listening pleasure. Some of these streaming radio stations operate on a pirate radio basis – they’re far from legal, but listening to their stream won’t get the listener in the kind of trouble that downloading music on a P2P service like eDonkey will. The point is that there are blurred lines all across the spectrum – what’s legal, what’s moral, and what’s available.

Putting aside all ideas of ethics, there are still some serious problems with Napster’s new “free music” plan. When compared to its streaming counterpart, online radio stations, this plan falls at face value because after listening a couple of times you must pay. Online radio, just like the radio you tune into at your office and in your car, doesn’t cost a dime.

Yet another major problem comes down to all those people who are determined to get something for nothing. Streaming music, despite Napster’s statement to the contrary, is not secure. It can be recorded with a variety of programs including Replay Music and Replay Radio, and iRadio. These little pieces of software allow users to record any web radio station or streaming music service. High quality MP3 files are automatically tagged with the artist and song title, and these programs are built to record from places like Rhapsody, Napster, iTunes, Yahoo Music Unlimited, Yahoo LaunchCast, Music Match Radio, Radio@Netscape, AOL Radio, AccuRadio, and Pandora. On a more legal side, they also allow you to record from your CD’s, LP’s, and cassette tapes as a “backup”.

Side-by-side, Napster’s misleading free music service will lose to streaming radio every time – or become exploited. It’s obvious that Napster needs to find new strategies to compete, and perhaps this move will lure in a few new subscribers – but it doesn’t begin to solve the financial problems, and the plan’s misleading nature is sure to cause upset.

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