Did Napster's "buycott" backfire?

Napster fans swapped free MP3s and hassled record companies like crazy, but so far CD sales haven't exploded.

By Janelle Brown
Published August 1, 2000 6:22PM (EDT)

Among Napster's bragging points is the impressive fact that it has a user base of more than 20 million people. Just think, company executives have noted, of all the buying power and voting power that such an immense following portends!

Well, last weekend was an opportunity for those 20 million fans to show just how loyal they are to the Napster cause. At the end of last week, Napster organized a weekend "buycott," urging fans to march into their local record stores and purchase CDs by an array of pro-Napster musicians, including DJ Spooky, Limp Bizkit and Ben Folds Five, and tell clerks that Napster sent them. Fans were also encouraged to call, fax and e-mail executives at the biggest record companies and industry associations with pro-Napster messages. It was an attempt to show the record industry that even with so many tunes available free, Napster fans are willing to spend their money on music.

So did the fans turn out on Napsters behalf?

Certainly, Napster's Web site saw massive traffic increases over this last week. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, traffic to the Napster site went up 92 percent last week, with an impressive 849,000 unique visitors and more than 3 million page views on Friday, and with software downloads doubling. Most of those visitors were probably scrambling to get all the freebies they could, fearing that the preliminary injunction against the company issued on Thursday might shut Napster down before they could download that new Madonna bootleg. That's certainly the Recording Industry Association of America's view, with CEO Hilary Rosen bitterly complaining that "since the district court issued its order, the illegal downloading of copyrighted music openly encouraged by Napster has probably exceeded all previous records."

As it turns out, the injunction was stayed. But even that news didn't seem to give all those fans incentive to break from their downloading frenzy to participate in the buycott. Insound.com, which was listed as an online vendor of several of the 33 buycott bands, received thousands of visitor referrals from the Napster site -- but not a single sale. According to founder Matt Wishnow, the site did sell around 80 records tied to the buycott, but those sales seemed to be from returning Insound customers who were just trying to take advantage of a weekend-long discount. And the online store ArtistDirect, which was also prominently linked, wouldn't comment on the results.

And as for the bricks-and-mortar record stores, at least one prominent San Francisco Bay Area record store said that it didn't see any noticeable buycott buyers. According to manager Alan Lewites of Amoeba Records in Berkeley, Calif., the store saw no notable increase in sales of any of those 33 artists, and no customers were proclaiming that they were buying CDs on behalf of Napster. Notes Lewites, "I don't think Napster's goal of getting people to make a statement made much of an impact on us this weekend."

But those are just a few eyewitness accounts; the real results won't be in until Wednesday, when Soundscan will release the past week's record sales numbers. What isn't noticeable in one or two stores may still have added up significantly nationwide.

Still, even if Napster fans lagged when it came to spending their hard-earned cash, they did seem willing to spend a few minutes of their time making phone calls. At least one of the record companies that Napster urged its fans to contact was deluged by pro-Napster messages: All phone calls to EMI records on Monday were greeted with the pointedly disgruntled message that "due to the recent campaign of an organization that is unhappy with the U.S. judicial process, our main switchboard has been flooded to the point where your phone call cannot be put through."

Ouch. If Napster was looking to curry favor with the 18 record labels that are suing it for copyright infringement, this weekend's shenanigans might have hurt more than they helped.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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