Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Napster = liars

One thing I left out of my Super Bowl non-review was Napster's shamelessly misleading ad that aired a couple times during the event (no, I won't link to it because I refuse to lend even my meager traffic to these jerks). Their assertion boils down to this: owing an iPod will cost you $10,000, while subscribing to their Napster-to-go service only costs $15/month. Where to begin?

The $10,000 figure derives, presumably, from the cost of filling a 40GB (10,000-song) iPod via the iTunes Music Store one song at a time (99¢ ea.). And yes, if that's how you plan on using your iPod, they are probably right, since at $180/year, you would have to subscribe to Napster for over 55 years to lose money on the deal. However, the players that Napster recommends as compatible with NTG have only a 5GB capacity, so it's maybe fairer to compare their service to the capacity of a 1st-gen iPod, which holds about 1000 songs. That only takes 5.5 years to reach the break-even point by this math. (Incidentally, it would take almost a month -- 27.8 days to be exact -- of round-the-clock listening to listen to 10,000 songs. I don't think it affects this argument one way or the other, I just thought it worth mentioning.)

Back to Napster's lies: I challenge Napster to produce one 40GB iPod owner who filled his or her iPod in the way their model assumes. The only reason I can imagine for wanting a 40GB iPod is that you already have a huge music collection that you have already (or plan to) digitized. I've been building up my iTunes library for four years now, and I still only have 24.4GB (5806 items) in it. Of those, only 233 (<1GB) were obtained through ITMS. The rest are all ripped from my CD collection, or are free (legal) downloads from artist and label sites. You can say that buying these CDs cost money, too, but (a) it's money I've already spent, and I don't see Napster offering to refund the cost of my CD collection or giving a discount for whatever portion of their song library I already own and (b) the cost of those CDs varies widely, from free (gifts) to cheap (used or from the cheapy rack) to full price (which maybe approaches the 99¢/song target Napster is relying on). Then, going back to the songs I did buy from Apple, Napster's math is again misleading since the 99¢/song figure applies only to a la carte purchases and albums with 10 or fewer songs on them. Albums with more songs are generally capped at $9.99. So for an 11-song album the cost is only 91¢/song; 12 songs: 83¢; 13 songs: 77¢, and so on. Extra-long albums (double-albums and the like) cost more, but are even better deals: Bob Dylan and The Band's Basement Tapes is $13.99 for 24 songs (58¢/song). The Magnetic Fields's triple-CD box 69 Love Songs is only $29.97 (43¢/song). Plus, a few of my iTunes songs were gotten for free through last year's Pepsi giveaway and other promotions. My total cost for 233 songs was $189.87 (81.5¢/song).

But of course the real fallacy here is that NTG and ITMS are selling the same thing, which of course they are not. With ITMS, you own the songs you buy. Yes, there are some restrictions on Apple's AAC protected format, but the terms are actually pretty liberal: you can back up your purchased music onto a CD that will play in any CD-player; you can put them on unlimited iPods and up to 5 computers; you can burn unlimited copies of custom playlists to give to friends; you can stream them over a local network—all legally. And if Cupertino falls into the Pacific tomorrow, or if you decide to give up your Internet connection forever, those songs are still yours forever. With Napster-to-go, you are only renting your music. Cancel your Napster-to-go account (or switch to a Mac, since NTG is Windows-only) and you lose access to everything. (You can keep your favorite songs by buying them from Napster, which costs, oh what a surprise, 99¢/song... on top of your subscription fees.)

I am far from the first to object to Napster's ad. Jason Snell debunked the ad for MacCentral, while John Gruber has done the same not once but twice over on Daring Fireball (Gruber, much to his credit, seems to have made it a personal mission to shoot down stupid and misleading Apple attacks -- such as RealNetwork's Harmony propaganda; the conventional wisdom that Apple blew it in the 80s and is making the same mistake again; and Microsoft's attempt to portray themselves as the champions of consumer choice). Neither they nor I are hostile to the idea of a subscription music service. For some people, that arrangement may be acceptable and even sensible. What is offensive about the ads like this is that rather than actually creating a better product than what Apple has to offer, they rely on specious comparisons, scare tactics, and outright lies to "prove" their superiority.