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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
Napster joins UK online music fray
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online science and technology staff

Napster - the brand most synonymous with the early heydey of peer-to-peer - has launched its music store for the UK.

Napster screenshot
Napster argues it is different by offering an "immersive experience"
It is the latest to offer music lovers in Britain a legitimate download service in what is becoming a busy market.

Peter Gabriel's OD2 already offers music downloads and streaming services through Mycokemusic.com, Virgin Megastores, MSN, Tiscali and Wanadoo.

And the highly successful Apple iTunes is set to launch in the UK soon.

Charles Grimsdale, chief of OD2, told BBC News Online he welcomed Napster's foot in the digital download door.

"The key issue is raising consumer awareness, that digital music is great value and a new experience," he explained.

And Brad Duea, Napster's president, is not afraid of the competition.

Play nice and share

Napster UK has all the elements any discerning digital music lover would expect for the money.

One can search for tracks and create and share playlists, and users can rip and merge existing CD libraries with downloaded tracks using the jukebox function.

The tracks are in Windows Media format, so they are compatible, and can be transferred to, a large proportion of portable players on the market, apart from Apple's iPod.

One can also choose to subscribe or pay-per-listen, and search for tracks by genre or other categories.

Brad Duea, Napster president
Often, when people are describing peer-to-peer, they are really describing the desire to have the ability to share music, to look at other peoples' collections, to communicate.
Brad Duea, Napster

Mr Duea is confident that Napster UK offers "an immersive experience built on choice" for British music lovers, with a "peer-to-peer feel".

It is not just the fact that for the price of a CD album, users can access thousands of tracks.

"It is important to provide consumers with choice, and that will be increasingly important as the player market sees new products launched," Mr Duea explained to BBC News Online.

But as the market develops, rivals will be eagerly monitoring each other to work out what else they can do to make legitimate music download sites more attractive than free, peer-to-peer networks.

Ultimately, they will be refining the elements that will drive customer loyalty.

"The market is long, long way from being saturated," said Mr Grimsdale.

"There are fundamentally different offers around, and it will take some time for consumers to find the offer that is best suited to them."

It is a big potential market to win over. Somewhere in the region of a $36bn (17bn) industry is moving online, according to Mr Duea. In the UK alone, it is a 2bn market.

The likes of Napster's flavour of an "immersive" experience leans towards a sense of an online community, which made Napster such an attractive service at its file-swapping peak.

The ability to share playlists, send selections to friends, or right click and buy a track from someone's playlist makes it "feel" like the old days of Napster.

OD2 is developing a community, sharing element for its services later this year.

"We are aware it is obviously something that worked for Napster and is something we will look to be developing later in the year," said Kathryn Leak, senior content manager for Virgin.

Brand power

There is no doubting that Napster remains a powerful brand though, but that is something OD2 is not concerned about.

"I would argue that our retail partners also have strong brand identity, and it is a range of brands," said OD2's Mr Grimsdale

"Not all of them are immediately associated with music, but we have a good balance.

Napster screenshot
Napster joins UK's digital music market
"We see different kinds of consumer buying into a different retail channel and that is one of our strengths."

Virgin Megastores, for example, has seen its recent online service grow and, if anything, offering music downloads has strengthened its image, according to Ms Leak.

"If you have a strong online presence, the increase footfall to your stores is more than worth it. We haven't seen sales decline because of the website, or the service."

The real challenge is what can then be done once you have convinced consumers they should pay for their digital music.

Mr Duea thinks download services could one day adopt the model that mobile phones have followed.

The download service could become the service provider, offering the hardware to play your music on, for free.

But for now, he argues that Napster is showing the future of peer-to-peer.

"Often, when people are describing peer-to-peer, they are really describing the desire to have the ability to share music, to look at other peoples' collections, to communicate.

"And we deliver that."

The BBC's David Sillito
"This is just the first of a series of online retailers coming to Britain"

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