Napster revives again today, this time for pay

Once-free music service now bills for downloads

October 09, 2003|By Jon Healey | Jon Healey,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Having launched one revolution in the music industry, Napster comes back to life today in a bid to foment a counterrevolution: persuading people who download songs for free to start paying again.

Like the original, the new version of Napster being launched by Roxio Corp. offers music fans a way to build their collections that's very different from buying CDs. This time, it's an industry-authorized mix of music rentals and pay-as-you-go downloads.

But the competition is much fiercer now than it was in 1999, when 18-year-old Shawn Fanning unleashed the pioneering Napster file-sharing service.

Roxio not only faces a growing number of rivals licensed by the record labels but also a slew of free file-sharing networks that attract an estimated 63 million people in the United States alone.

At the same time, advocates of file sharing are pushing ways to legitimize networks that allow users to swap tens of millions of songs a day from computers all over the world.

Analyst Michael McGuire of GartnerG2, a technology research firm, said the online upheaval made this a great time for risk-taking music distributors - but not necessarily for record companies, which have watched CD sales plummet in recent years.

"If you're still trying to protect what amounts to a 100-year-old business model," McGuire said, "things must look pretty bleak right now" because music fans have voted en masse in favor of free file sharing. The issue, he said, is "how do you get them back in the corral?"

The major record labels shut down the original Napster in 2001 with a federal court injunction that barred its users from violating copyrights. Roxio, which bought the Napster name and technology at a bankruptcy auction last year, is reviving the brand just as major competitors are jumping into the field with the labels' blessing.

Those businesses include online music stores that charge about $1 for each downloadable song and subscription services that charge about $10 a month to hear or rent an unlimited number of tracks. Roxio's Napster will offer both a store and a subscription service. RealNetworks Inc. and AOL Time Warner Inc.'s America OnlineSimilar will soon launch similar online services.

Although they mimic the traditional way of buying music, the online stores offer one significant improvement for music fans: Customers can buy individual songs, not just full CDs or singles chosen by the record label. But there are downsides, too. Not every artist or song is available, and the tracks are wrapped in electronic locks that limit their ability to be copied or transferred.

Subscription services are a more radical departure from conventional music buying. They offer an unlimited amount of music for a flat monthly fee, but most require that the music be played on a computer. And they typically cut off access to those songs if the subscription is canceled.

With Roxio's Napster, subscribers pay $10 a month to play an unlimited number of songs from an Internet jukebox or download "tethered" versions to be played when they're not online. To move "tethered" songs to a portable device or burn them onto a CD, the service charges about $1 per track.

By this time next year, Napster executives hope to enhance the service by allowing subscribers to move an unlimited number of songs onto selected portable devices and take them wherever they go. But that depends on Microsoft Corp. delivering the necessary technology. The new Napster system is an overhauled version of Pressplay, the online music service that Vivendi Universal's Universal Music Group and Sony Corp.'s Sony Music Entertainment sold to Roxio in May.

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