I’ve been to see a few music streaming services recently. I’ve been a long-time user of Spotify, but in the last month I’ve gone for briefings with both Sony (for its Music Unlimited service) and now Napster, which is relaunching in the UK as a streaming service owned by US company Rhapsody.

Apparently, now’s the time to get in on the streaming action; the market is growing. But if that’s the case, what can you do to differentiate yourself from the big players? And how do you shake off such an infamous reputation as the one attached to Napster? That’s exactly what I asked Napster Europe’s General Manager, Thorsten Schliesche…

Napster’s new service has all the bells and whistles you’d expect, at the price you’d expect. For £5 per month, you’re gifted access to over 15 million songs to stream or, if you want the mobile app, £10 per month for the ability to save songs for offline use.

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Whereas Sony’s trick is to claim to get to know your tastes and suggest music based on them, and Spotify’s is in the social side of things, the relaunched Napster is setting itself up as a destination full of carefully cultivated editorial, with regularly updated content written in each territory by a team of local music buffs. There are reviews, videos, biographies, interviews and the like, and it comes across as the sort of thing you could get quite lost in.

So that’s the pitch over with; now for some more pressing questions…

Is the ‘a la carte’ music-buying model dead?

Spotify’s the old dog now. Along Samsung’s Music Hub, MOG, Rdio and Music Unlimited, Napster is in a market suddenly bustling with streaming – rather than selling – services. Does that mean that the act of buying songs is dying out?

“It feels old school,” said Schliesche. “Everybody’s talking about other stuff, but when you look at revenue for the music industry, 80 per cent still comes from a la carte.” But, he said, that is changing, which is exactly why so many people are now getting in on the streaming business.

“90 per cent of the record companies have understood and accepted that music streaming will be the future. Or an important element. There will still be people buying CDs and MP3s, but streaming will be the important element of the future. I think finally that’s accepted.”

Schliesche suggests that the only stumbling blocks that remain at the moment are in price and in spreading the word. “We still have to work with a lot of people to get the access, rather than ownership, model across.It’s a change in culture, for people to understand that access is enough and you don’t need to own music to listen to it.”

And on price? “What is the right price? And how do you split the revenues between the operators, the labels and the artists? There’s still some discussion to do there,” says Schliesche. Which leads me on to another thing…

What about Napster’s reputation?

Napster’s history is chequered. The one-time king of free music has long since been neutered, watered down and rebranded, but is that wise when reputation still sticks in people’s minds?

“To be completely honest, for the end consumer, Napster has never had any negative connotations.” Alright, fair point; everyone loved it in it’s original guise. “The challenge we have is that, for the original user, Napster was a free music experience. We’re still a music experience, but we’ve had to replace ‘free’ with ‘value for money.’”

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That’s still an industry-wide problem. For now, at least, £10 per month seems to be the unmovable option (as long as you’re allowing people to save music for offline use, at least).

But a problem much closer to Napster’s HQ must surely be a soured relationship with the record companies? “Within the industry, we had a bad reputation,” Schliesche concedes. But that was around a decade ago now. Has the dust settled? “We’ve churned to bury [that reputation],” he adds. “We’re working well with the labels.”

And Napster needs to. While the streaming war winner probably won’t be decided on who has the most tracks, it certainly helps to be able to compete to the nearest million.

Privacy is king

But, as it emerged, there is an area where Napster can claim to be superior to Spotify, even aside from the focus on editorial. While running through the desktop version of the app, something Schliesche said piqued my attention.

“On your profile settings you choose whether to connect your profile to Facebook or not. Then you choose whether you want to be visible in the Napster service or not.” Hang on; you mean it’s not an auto-posting embarrassment machine like Spotify?

“We think [Spotify’s system] is the wrong way,” he says. “Doing something that really forces them to post is nothing I want here.” To that end, Napster’s privacy options are a novelty; it’s all up to you.

“You can create your complete profile and be completely invisible to other users, or you open the app and you can  be seen by other users.” I’m well aware that Spotify lets you remain anonymous, but it seems like, especially if you’re using both the phone and desktop apps, you’ve forever got to be watching it to make sure it doesn’t auto-post, to someone, somewhere, that I’m listening to something humiliating.

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Schliesche saying “The default is ‘Not Visible’. You have to actively click on ‘Visible’” was music to my ears. “We don’t want to force customers to do something. We definitely feel we should give people control over what others see. Especially over the Facebook discussion.

“Even if people connect their profile to Facebook, every time something is going to post to their wall, there’s still the question ‘do you really want to post this?’ So people have to confirm it.”

I like. Do I like it enough to convert? I’ll certainly give Napster a bash for a bit. And I’ll let you know how I get on. Meanwhile, I’ve got another couple of features to add to the fantasy music streaming service building in my head.

Link: Napster UK

  • Barry Robertson

    I would say rdio is better as I was a napster member before and the service went downhill in the uk since the takeover but cannot comment on the service now since I left

  • TM

    You don’t have to be visible on spotify, unless you sync it to your facebook / last fm account, plus there is the privacy mode option so you can listen to some embarrassing stuff offline if you want.

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