Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

The useful/uselessness of the new Napster

I’ve been busy lately, with a thing or two I can mention and maybe a couple that are secret for now, but nonetheless, busy. The one thing I can mention is the zine, which is still going strong. I had a near-aneurysm trying to think of a new name for the thing, and now I’ve just decided to go the ‘fuck it’ route and keep the original name of Air in the Paragraph Line. It’s neutral, it sounds weird, and it doesn’t involve me thinking of a new name. I have a bunch of writers on board, a couple of extra spots, and I hope to have enough stuff so I can print out a huge stack of shit and bring it on the plane with me when I leave for Hawaii at the end of the month.

Here’s one I keep forgetting to write about. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to join the new Napster. Sounds stupid, you think. Well, I found it an interesting offering for a few reasons, and I thought I’d mention the pros and cons and why I think it’s a great product. And I’d first like to start by saying I don’t own stock in them or get paid per new signup or anything like that. So here goes.

Napster has a new service, and instead of being the old peer-to-peer setup where you steal music from the world around, this one is basically like an iTunes sort of online store, but with a twist. You can pay 99 cents a track like iTunes, but they also have a subscription service where you sign up for $9.99 a month and you get all-you-can eat downloads from their catalog. The way this works is they use Windows Media’s licensing scheme so you get all of these files, and they work as long as you’re a paying subscriber. When you stop paying, they don’t work. So you can’t sign up for like a weekend and then fill your hard drive and quit. Napster to Go is an upgrade from this, where at $15 a month, you can take the tunes with you on your Windows Media-enabled portable player.

Of course, most people’s immediate reaction is “WHAT A FUCKING RIPOFF! YOU DON’T GET TO KEEP ANYTHING! THEY STEAL YOUR MUSIC! WHAT A JOKE!” and so on. But here’s the deal, I know that. I’m not using Napster to buy my music. What I am doing is using it to find music that I like. It’s like I have the ultimate in-store kiosk, except I don’t have to go to the store. I can download an album, give it a few spins, and if I really like it, I’ll drop the $15 on Amazon for a copy. People can’t wrap their heads around the idea that you aren’t paying $9.99 a month for a shopping spree in which you have to download as much shit as possible; you’re really paying $9.99 a month to rent music. It’s like paying for cable TV or satellite radio. You don’t get to “keep” anything from HBO if you pay for cable; you essentially rent the shows and watch them. (Maybe you tape them, but that’s a grey area.)

The Napster interface has a lot of clicky-clicking to do as far as finding bands related to other bands. They license some of allmusic’s information, so you get related items and whatnot. A neat feature that they have is that you can build a radio station based on the items in your library. It will look at the stuff you have downloaded, and then dump a playlist of similar stuff, so you can stream each song, or click on the album cover and go find out about the band if you are interested and want to download other stuff. This is pretty much why I was interested in doing this. I want an interactive way to cruise through allmusic, finding similar artists to the stuff I already like, listening to albums and deciding if they are worth the money or not. Amazon has had a recommendation feature for a while, and I’ve found a good number of books that way. They also have music, but just dorky 30-second clips, and it’s not driven in the same way as this guy.

Other features that I like include a good playlist system for dropping tracks into a list. I know, everything has playlists, but it’s more of a concern when you’re downloading a fuckload of stuff like me. You can use your account on up to four other machines, and there is a certain amount of persistence between logins. Let’s say I’m at home and I find a bunch of neato albums and download them. When I get to work the next day and fire up my napster client, I can then view the “out of sync” track list and download them onto my work computer. Playlists also persist across accounts. Another nice feature is that you can burn a CD of items in your library, Napster or your own MP3. It has some sort of built-in CDR software, so you don’t have to fuck with Nero or whatever. Just add your tracks to a playlist or drop them to a little burn staging area, and it figures out the minutes left and all of that. There are also a lot of browse-oriented features, like people put together their own radio stations (you can too), there are genre-specific pages of what’s new and music news-type stuff, and they have given it a good stab as far as creating community stuff (although most message boards are full of 14-year-olds screaming “THIS SUCKS! I WANT TO FUCKING STEAL MUSIC, NOT PAY FOR IT!”

There are caveats. The iPod flat-out won’t work with Napster to Go, since it doesn’t support WMA’s licensing features. You can “keep” songs, but you have to pay 99 cents each. You also can’t burn a Napster song unless you downloaded it for a buck. Not all songs download and cache; depending on the licensing and label, some will only stream, so you have to be online to play them. I’m not sure of the algorithm of when you have to be online or not to keep your license current; I have messed around for a day or so with my Tablet offline and it worked fine. We’ll see if it works when I go to Hawaii for a week.

Anyway, that’s been my new toy as of late. I’m finding old albums I’ve long since forgotten, and it has given me at least a few suggestions that actually turned out great. Another related project is that I’m throwing my CD collection into a MySQL/PHP site that I whipped up, with hopes of adding links on individual CDs or bands to reviews or little stories or whatever other crap I have. I have a few CD reviews laying around the site, but I’d like to have one central repository for them. So that’s the goal, but I have fucked up the edit page in my little project and can’t seem to get it to smash the contents of an array into the database and have it stick. I’ll deal with that after about 12 hours of sleep, I hope.