The UW makes a deal with Napster and Dell for online music for students

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It was announced on Wednesday that we’ve made a deal with Napster and Dell to provide online music for students in the dorms this coming academic year.

This deal came as a result of the UW Daily (our student newspaper) having published a story in May about how we had been having discussions about whether to provide access to a commercial music download service for students. When I spoke with the Daily I had been hoping to get some gauge of student interest in having a commercial music downloading service available.

We didn’t get much student response, but Jennifer Clark, our local Dell representative, did read the article and approached us a few days later about our interest in being the first campus to offer this new joint Dell/Napster service. After a frantic couple of months of discussions, we arrived at final agreements last Friday.

So what’s in the deal?

Starting this coming fall, students who live in the dorms will be able to sign up for the Napster Premium service for free. This will allow them to use the Napster application to download music to their PC (Windows XP and 2k only) and play it on that computer. The student can authorize up to three computers to play the files. The files are protected with Microsoft’s copy protection scheme so that these files cannot be transferred to portable devices or burned to CDs.

For an extra fee, students will be able to register for the Napster-To-Go service, which allows them to transfer tunes to a Napster-certified portable device. Certified devices include the DJs from Dell as well as others from Creative, iRiver, Samsung, etc – but not Apple (one interesting thing to me is that all the companies call these portable devices “mp3 players” even when the music files they’re talking about are definitely emailnotify_v0.3.1.tar in mp3 format).

The subscription will be good for the academic year. Over the summer students will be able to play music they downloaded previously, but will only be able to download new music if they pay for an additional summer service.

When the free subscriptions are over, the student will have the option to convert to a paid subscription. Once the student is no longer a subscriber, the songs will not play anymore.

So how do I feel about the deal?

I’ll be very curious to see what the reaction is to this service among the student body in the dorms – how many of them sign up, and what the usage is over time once they do sign up.

I’ve been playing a little bit with the service, and I think the Napster folks are doing a nice job of trying to build a compelling piece of software – the community elements such as messaging and sharing playlists look intriguing, and the library seems pretty full so far. I’m starting to think that the subscription model is actually a pretty interesting one for music junkies like me, who are always looking for new music to play. For me, the success or failure of such a service will depend on how the library matches up with the particular niches of the long tail that I’m interested in.

Just before we left on vacation my friend Ed gave me Nick Hornby’s Songbook (known outside the US as 31 songs), where he writes about, logically enoough, 31 songs that he finds compelling. It’s a great read, and, I think, typical of lots and lots of listeners who are listening to some new songs, some old songs, some popular songs, and some way-outish acts that won’t be on any Billboard list. The thirty-one songs, by the way, are listed on this Dutch web site). After reading the book I of course want to go listen to the songs mentioned that I’m not familiar with, and I think that will be one interesting test of the extensiveness of the Napster library.

The one big drawback of Napster and all the other commercial music downloading services continues to be the reliance on various copy protection schemes (I refuse to buy into using “Digital Rights Management” (or DRM), the industry’s favorite term for this protection – the only rights being managed are those of the distributor – the rights of the listener are mostly trampled in these schemes see Cory’s brilliant talk to Microsoft last summer.). It seems obvious that by making it difficult for people who love music to do what they want with the music that they will continue to drive people to use the non-commercial peer-to-peer file-sharing networks and/or buy CDs to do their own ripping. The first thing most people ask me about Napster is if they can put tunes onto their iPods. When they hear they can’t, they lose interest fast.

My experience with the major online p2p services is that finding and retrieving the music you want from them is unreliable, slow, and the files you get are completely inconsistent in quality. Who wouldn’t want to get files from fast and reliable servers with consistent quality and good searching and cataloging? The main questions are price and flexibility. I firmly believe that if the majority of songs were available with no copy restrictions at a reasonable price (I think at a buck a song they’re still too expensive by a factor of four) that the music industry would see a phenomenal growth in the market for their products that would dwarf anything they’ve ever experienced. I also believe that the right price for fast, reliable, flexible service would offer a value proposition that would be hard to resist, and would discourage the spread of piracy.

But we don’t seem to be getting there anytime soon, at least not from the major labels and online distribution services. Instead they seem to be descending daily further into a complex set of conflicting schemes about under which restrictive scenarios their licensing schemes will allow. You can download, but only play on your computer. You can put it on some portable devices but not others. You can only burn to CD for another fee. True ease of use and value for the consumer seems to play a small part in these schemes, and that’s unfortunate, because it limits the success of the entire online music world.

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