Napster: What you should know before plunking down five dollars

There's no doubt that five dollars a month for a music subscription is about as dirt cheap as you can get, so Napster is right on when it comes to attractive pricing. Five dollars for five DRM-free MP3s and unlimited streaming of Napster's catalog per month is a price seated squarely on the "why not?" point.

But this is the point where you have to be wary, because you could end up buying more of what you already have.

Rob Daumeyer of the Business Courier of Cincinnati wrote an editorial earlier this year about the perils of bargain basement shopping, and the "It's so cheap, I can't afford not to buy it" mentality. He rifles off a list of on sale items that he's drooling over, but concludes that there's not a legitimate reason to buy any of them and he is torn. He says, "What's a man supposed to do? Do I really need a fifth beer fridge? Costco is whispering, 'Yes you do, girlie man. And while you're here, why not take home a few dozen flat-screen TVs? They're 40 percent off.'"

If the Napster Cat is beckoning you in such a way, take a moment to consider your music consumption habits. This is something you should do before you commit money to any subscription service, cheap or not. For example, if you prefer "programmed" radio such as Sirius XM, Terrestrial/HD broadcast radio, or live Internet radio, then Napster really has nothing to offer you at present. The "stations" that Napster offers (and its Automix function) are more like the "seeded" family of Internet radio services like Pandora, Jango, and Last.fm. They lack the unpredictability and flow of a radio program with a DJ, and draw from a limited well of similar artists. This means that when you select a Napster station, you are likely to hear a number of songs by the same artist in close succession. While this can be fully tailored to a listener's tastes and is a useful tool for discovery of new music, those other services do it for free. Napster ultimately does not.

Furthermore, even though Napster says there are seven million songs to stream, you'll find yourself frequently running into 30 second clips instead of full songs. In Betanews tests, one search in three yielded an album with only clips instead of full tracks. If you want to hear one of those full songs, you have to buy the MP3. Though it attempts to differentiate itself from MP3 stores such as iTunes, Amazon, and Wal-Mart by adding "unlimited" streaming, underneath the subscription veneer Napster is really quite the same as the others.

I was a Napster user ten years ago when it was a P2P service. Using it today, I found myself flung back into a late 90's mindset. I started to recall bands that I have long since "un-discovered" which I spent hours downloading on a dial-up connection those years ago. I found an album that I wanted to listen to, but all the tracks were only 30 second clips, even as a subscriber. I recalled that there were alternate versions of some of the songs released on various EPs. Napster had none of those, nor did any of the download shops I typically patronize. I ended up turning to the old search engine. From there, in less than the 30 seconds Napster would have given me to listen to each track, I found them in a music blog.

Illegal? You bet. But an apropos outcome. Napster was the original supervillain of music piracy, and now after six or so years as a completely different being, it's totally "establishment." It's so legitimate that it doesn't carry a lot of the out-of-circulation and obscure stuff that used to be so easy to find there. It's like a digital Best Buy, and for most, that isn't necessarily even a bad thing.

There is no single perfect medium for consumption of music, and Napster does offer a couple of shining gems. The artist-chosen playlists are somehow morbidly interesting (Rick Springfield likes Portishead, Depeche Mode, and Frou Frou?) and the Napster-made playlists provide entertaining streaks of musical themes (27 Years of "Weird Al" Yankovic, for example).

Even though you will not be able to satisfy your most obscure tastes, there is a substantial enough library of content from which to build your own long playlists. And since it allocates a limited number of downloads per month like Microsoft's Zune Pass, it is a viable way to give parents a "music allowance" for their kids who may otherwise be downloading music illegally on their computer.

Most of the MP3s available on Napster are also available elsewhere (there are some Napster-exclusive live performances), so for those with regularly-used iTunes and Amazon accounts, there is little here in the way of additional services that you cannot already get elsewhere for free.

The bottom line: Napster's streaming is good for the price, but not indispensable by any means.

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