New Napster?

The NME is carrying a story today about the latest venture on the part of Shawn Fanning, the founder of Napster. Snocap is likely to garner more interest from this than from News.com’s coverage a couple of weeks back, but if you’re wanting detail the latter is a better read.

It seems rather likely that Fanning will be seen as a traitor by many P2P advocates. The new service is built after prolonged discussions with the music industry and, we are told, is set to employ sophisticated ‘song matching’ technology (perhaps similar to musicbrainz?) to block the sharing of any music that is also being sold through that network by a record label. It’s in some ways a halfway house between the iTunes Music Store and traditional P2P, and seems to be the first genuinely new contribution to that area of online music in some time.

What is left ambiguous in both articles is how the system defines ‘unlicensed’ content. It seems clear that copyright holders will be free to release their own material into the network without restriction, but potentially more interesting is the approach taken to out of print and live material that would otherwise remain unavailable and that has become the lifeblood of some P2P networks.

It is possible that the record labels will utilise these new outlets to keep music in print for longer and to make more ‘rarities’ available to the fans, thus cashing in on the long tail effect but that would require a shift in record label thinking of the sort they have so far appeared reluctant to undertake. It may be that such material would be entirely blocked, or alternatively that any material not ‘claimed’ by a label can circulate freely. My guess is that the labels are more likely to insist on a level of exclusivity that will block such material, even if Fanning tries to keep this a grey-area.

The music industry desparately needs to wake up to the opportunities available to it, but has for so long been locked into narrow understandings of marketing that it is difficult to see how that awakening can happen any time soon. There are so many advantages to labels, artists and consumers alike to more fully embracing the opportunities here that someone needs to trigger that awakening. It’ll be interesting to hear how Snocap intend to achieve that.

(if you notice slightly more posts along these lines over the next while, it’s probably because I’m giving a talk on online music at the 2005 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Music — online registration is now open)

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