You could be forgiven for thinking that Napster is that file-sharing network you got your entire Nelly music library from in university. But the name is all that remains of those halcyon days – after a series of legal tussles that saw Metallica and Dr. Dre get involved, nu-Napster as of 2010 is a music streaming and download site.
In the UK, it has serious competition though - along with the heavyweight Spotify, there's the newer Deezer, Samsung's iTunes/Spotify-competing Music Hub, as well as Rdio, a relative newcomer to our fair isles. So how's it stack up?
Its song catalogue numbers 15 million, a surprisingly high number until you discover that thanks to various acquisitions by US companies Roxie and Best Buy, Napster has really been operating in current form more or less since 2006. This covers comprehensive electronic as well as live territory, oldies and released-just-yesterdays. Unlike Spotify, you can stream music directly from its website instead of having to download a desktop program, which is pretty useful if you want to listen to tunes on someone else’s computer.
Like Spotify and Deezer, you can sign up for £5 or £10 subscription options, where £5 grants you access to the website and £10 lets you download the mobile app and use it on up to three devices. Where Spotify offers a free, ad-supported version with limited plays per month, Napster allows a free trial period only.
It’s available on iPhone and Android, so you could potentially use it on two phones and a tablet, say. An iPad version is landing before the end of the year, with extra tablet-friendly features and optimisations for the larger form.
Both apps sport a basic interface for music browsing and navigation. You can create your own playlists, as well as let the app recommend a playlist of similar artists or a favourite song. You can also access your song history to easily replay those earworm favourites.
The app lets you download playlists for offline listening – a la Spotify – and has the bonus feature of automatically caching the last 100 songs you played, as well as the next 10 on a currently playing playlist. So if you’re streaming over 3G and you lose connection, you’ll be all right for at least half an hour.
On the website, the interface is clean and simple, with a playlist and mixer blocked off on the right hand side, making it easy to control your music, as well as share a track on Facebook and Twitter.
When logged into the web version, you’ll see your personal homepage with recommendations and any new music heads ups. Here’s where you can link to your Facebook account, edit your profile and select your favourite genres for better recommendations. Like Spotify, you can follow other users to check out what they’re listening to.
On an artist profile page, you can see their latest album cover, top tracks, similar artists and ‘top listeners’, aka people who have been listening to that artist most – perhaps handy in finding new people to follow. Top tracks seems to only note tracks that have had over a certain number of plays, so with lesser known artists, top tracks might only have one or two songs. In fact, the artist’s full catalogue is accessed via the tabs above the album art.
So far, rather like Spotify. Napster says that the big difference lies in the extra content you get about each band, as well as feature articles on trends in music. 'We have four editors writing indepth articles. We’re not just a list of songs, but a level of services to help people discover more music,' says Thorsten Schliesche, general manager for Western Europe.
To that end, there’s definitely a lot of curation going on too, with a Napster50 list of ‘handpicked’ top 50 releases every month. In the app, you can view Napster charts, Billboard charts as well as recommendations. As we write this review, there are articles on ‘Cult Heroes’ Morrisey, an Album of the Week editorial, and a quirky roundup of songs talking about money. These articles help in Napster’s mission of music discovery with playlist links to all music mentioned.
'For the moment we’re focused on discovering music. A next step will be linking music with tickets, competition and merchandise.' Schliesche doesn’t confirm a launch date for this next step – something which Spotify already supports through integrated apps like Songkick – but at the moment, users who like any content are notified on their Napster homepage or mobile app when there are new releases or related articles.
Like Spotify, the company has collaborated with home tech companies to launch on the Sonos and Raumfeld wireless multi-room stereo systems, as well as Loewe smart TVs. On these systems, preloaded Napster lets you directly stream music and view editorial extras, while the service will soon also be built into a Yamaha receiver and the Logitech Squeezebox speaker. To use it here, there's a £5 per month subscription for home entertainment-bound streaming only.
Napster is also working more closey with artists to release exclusive content for competitions, offer signed albums, as well as interviews or live recordings with digital releases.
'It’s great to see that artists start to understand that in the digital age, a product isn’t just 12 tracks you publish and sell,' says Schliesche. 'Lots of labels and artists still think it needs to contain 12 tracks. Interactivity will drive rethinking in the industry.'
Look out for that interactivity to land inside Napster this year. Napster is free now on iOS and Android for users who subscribe for £10 per month.