Noah Robischon
November 02, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

What the Napster deal means for music swappers

Ever lost your Net connection in the middle of downloading a song? It’s a big disappointment — which is what Napster users are feeling now that their favorite music trading mecca is in bed with Bertelsmann, one of the world’s biggest record companies. But instead of fighting Napster’s decision to develop a ”for pay” membership service on top of the existing free for all, downloaders should be facing the music.

Sharing tunes without paying for them, after all, is only one part of what makes Napster sing. File swapping is also a magnificent way of bringing people with similar musical tastes together, because two people who like U2 probably have something to talk about. And whenever I come across another Napster user with a folder full of songs I like, and one or two that I’ve never heard of, it’s a good bet I’ll like that new stuff. Which is part of why the service has become so popular even though MP3 files can just as easily be downloaded from a website, or sent via e-mail.

No one understands this better than Napster’s creator, 19 year old Shawn Fanning. ”Napster has grown to 38 million users in about a year, and we grew because we had a great user experience and a product that people really loved,” he told me after the announcement on Tuesday. ”There’s no way we’re going to threaten that.” Indeed, the famed code slinger’s top priority right now isn’t building a way for the service to accept credit card payments, or creating a copy proof file format to appease record labels, but improving Napster’s user interface to make it easier to connect with other users and build fan communities.

Bertelsmann’s CEO, Thomas Middelhoff, also understands the value of an online audience. He invested in America Online in 1994, back when people joked about it being a gigantic digital pickup bar. But not all those chatters were hot blooded typists, and once AOL had them hooked it was fairly easy to feed entertainment news, stock portfolios, and all kinds of other services to them — and no one balks at paying a monthly fee in exchange. Napster, which is barely two years old, already has nearly the number of users at any given time of day that AOL does. And Fanning says that every time he adds a new server to handle the traffic, it fills to capacity overnight.

That kind of growth is expensive to keep up with, and, combined with a potentially costly lawsuit brought by the Recording Industry Association of America on behalf of record companies, could easily put Napster out of business. So, free music addicts, which would you prefer? To see Napster go under and be replaced by less reliable services like Gnutella and Napigator, or to cough up a monthly membership fee — CEO Hank Barry mentioned $4.95 per month — in exchange for an even better file sharing service?

The influx of cash from Bertelsmann gives Fanning the resources to improve the service, while also showing the courtroom hungry recording industry that Napster is willing to play fair. And Napster users would see benefits as well: higher quality music files, more stable downloads, reliable track listings, liner notes, and artwork. And to appease the ever paranoid netniks out there, Barry is promising a detailed accounting of how the membership fees will be split between rights holders, artists, and record labels. Plus, Napster would still maintain a free area on the service to help promote unsigned bands and underground artists.

The iffy part of the Bertelsmann deal is that it probably won’t make recording contracts any more fair to artists. But you can’t change everything at once. And I’d rather Napster survive than see its revolutionary download interrupted.

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