“Do the math,” commanded Napster’s lame Super Bowl ad for its new Napster to Go service, and lo, the math was done. On one side of the equation stood the $14.95 per month it costs to access over a million songs from Napster to Go; on the other, the $10,000 it would cost to fill an iPod with 10,000 songs from Apple’s iTunes music store. And in between? Hard-nosed tech reporters quickly scrawled a this-equals-bullshit sign. Never mind $15 a month, they wrote: What self-respecting music lover wants to pay one dime for a record collection that, like Napster’s subscription-only songs, disappears as soon as you stop paying?
Well, us. So responded a few self-respecting music lovers, some no doubt remembering what made the original Napster the revolution it was: songs that were free not just to own but to discover. Songs you got to know on a whim, songs that never would have had a chance if you had had to pay a buck for every chance you took. And insofar as the new Napster’s all-you-can-eat pricing re-creates that freedom, iTunes can indeed kiss its corporate ass.
In the end, though, niether service quite adds up to the free-cultural utopia that was Shawn Fanning’s Napster. And as long as that utopia lives on in newer file-sharing schemes like eDonkey and BitTorrent, nothing short of a legalized system for the unrestricted sharing of copyrighted music can compete with it. Who wouldn’t pay $15 a month for that? And who wouldn’t cheer the record industry that figured out how to channel that money to the artists who earned it? Getting there won’t be easy, but the hardest part for the business types is simply finding the courage to go. The rest is math, and one hears they’re good at that.