The Napster parasites

Online marketers are snooping around in your hard drive, taking notes on every MP3 file you download.


Janelle Brown
February 10, 2001 1:30AM (UTC)

Web sales manager Monica Partridge was logged on to Napster, downloading tunes and generally minding her own business one Wednesday evening, when an instant message interrupted her. "I see you have some Aimee Mann songs on your hard drive," read the message, which originated from a person she'd never met. "Aimee Mann has a new promotional song, go check it out at aimeemann.com."

Partridge is, in fact, an Aimee Mann fan -- and sure enough, she did have a hard drive full of her tunes. So she was curious enough to go visit the Web page. There she found an acoustic version of Mann's song "Ghost World," a form with which she could sign up for Mann's mailing list and a link for buying "Bachelor No. 2," Mann's award-winning album.

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Pleased at the opportunity to grab another free download, Partridge was also perturbed. "I wasn't bothered by the fact that it was Aimee Mann, but I would have been upset if it was another artist I didn't respect so much," she says. "I was just using Napster to get music and then had someone invade my space and tell me to go somewhere for advertising purposes -- I find that annoying."

She'd better get used to it. Hard-drive snooping is the latest in online grass-roots marketing, and Napster is helping to make it happen. Peer-to-peer (P2P) networks in which Net-connected individuals make the contents of their hard drives available to the general public are no longer being used just by music fans to swap illicit MP3s; they are also increasingly being used as a savvy promotional tool and a market research database by record labels, musicians and entrepreneurs who are trying to figure out better, faster ways to sell music. In fact, a whole new crop of market research companies is springing up online -- call them Napster parasites or, more politely, symbionts -- eager to take advantage of the wealth of personal data that can be mined from hard drives all over the world.

The suggestions for Napster's future are intriguing. If the company can transform itself from being a threat to the record industry into becoming a marketing tool for the likes of Sony and Warner Music, the path forward for sanctioned online music downloading looks pretty clear. And some signs are promising -- after all, Mann herself has long been a staunch critic of Napster. If she -- or her management -- is beginning to see opportunity where once they saw only economic disaster, then a major sea change in the online music world is at hand.

But there's at least one major caveat. Will Napster users take kindly to marketers peeking at their hard drives? It's one thing to make your music files available to other music fans. But when those other fans morph into marketing specialists who want to sell you concert tickets or T-shirts based on what you download, the privacy implications suddenly become severe. Welcome to the brave new world of Napster ... again.

Napster did not respond to press inquiries for this story. But at some point in the past six months, the company slipped a nifty new feature into its software: the ability to send an instant message to someone else who is logged on to the file-trading network. So if you've been a regular Napster user recently, you may have received the odd instant message from a fellow user who wanted to share some music or had a question about one of your tunes. Lately, however, the barrage of instant messages has both increased in frequency and turned sharply toward the promotional.

On a recent evening, for example, I was logged on to Napster for just a few hours; in that time I received three different instant messages from strangers. One, from a user who went as "Free_Mp3," sent me a note that said, "Tip: the Trance trax on your drive are old. Download FREE new Trance MP3's. They're floor killers!!!" The link sent me to a page on MP3.com where I could download tunes from a band called Analog Pussies. Another message came in just minutes later, from a user called "ovk01." "Hi janelle, i found 'depeche' on your hard disk, maybe you like synthpop too. Have you heard 'against me' by 'lederer'? Get it at http://www.ustop.de!" This one, too, led to a band's home page where I could download some free tunes.

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I didn't take them up on their offers -- I don't actually care much for either trance or Depeche Mode, though I did happen to have both on my hard drive. But I appreciated the persistent self-marketing of these unknown bands, who were clearly trying to pinpoint potential fans by associating their tastes with their own bands' influences. The approach seems to be working for Analog Pussies: The band has collected over $8,451 in Payback for Playback money, which means that tens of thousands of potential fans have already checked out their music.

But it isn't merely resourceful unsigned bands that have picked up on the joys of Napster-mediated instant messaging. Scott Ross, director of new media for electronic music label Moonshine, started picking up on the possibilities for instant message promotions last fall. He and his team now scour Napster on a daily basis, searching for fans who have Moonshine's artists on their hard drives. After finding one, they'll strike up a conversation and then suggest downloading other free promotional MP3s or signing up for fan mailing lists.

"That's as targeted a marketing technique as you can possibly get," says Ross. "This person is obviously a fan -- they've dedicated hard drive space to the artist -- so it's logical that they would be interested in this." And it's very effective, he says: "Everyone I've instant-messaged downloaded the song."

But this kind of personalized promotion is also extremely time-consuming. Napster's instant-messaging feature only allows you to contact two users at once, making it difficult to reach a large number of fans in a concentrated period of time.

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Which is where companies like BigChampagne and A.D.D. Marketing come in.

Online market research company BigChampagne is the mastermind behind the Aimee Mann promotion. This company has developed its own software tools that allow it to conduct massive instant-messaging sweeps for its clients, not just on Napster but also on peer-to-peer networks like Gnutella and Scour. According to Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, Mann is one of the first official tests of the system, but the company has clients at "all the major record labels." BigChampagne's beta test of its system was for Glen Phillips, the singer of the now-defunct band Toad the Wet Sprocket. Phillips searched Napster for users with Toad the Wet Sprocket tunes on their hard drives and then instant-messaged them with the URL for his new band; more than 20,000 fans have since registered at his Web site.

But Garland calls this kind of instant-messaging promotion just "a stunt." The real marketing opportunity in P2P networks, he says, is gathering data about user habits. "We seized onto P2P because it allows a singular opportunity to observe really intimate consumer behavior," he explains. "You're not asking them what's your taste in music, games, books, what have you -- you're looking in the pantry, straight into the fridge."

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BigChampagne scours all the P2P networks, watching what is downloaded on a daily basis and making charts tracking the popularity of various songs, pirated software and films, video games and other illicit files. Garland then reports back to his clients: "by and large, artists, management and content owners who want to see exactly what's getting what reaction where."

For example, if an album makes its way onto Napster before it's released in stores, BigChampagne will track how many users are sharing the record, the popularity of each track on the album -- including whether users don't like a track and later delete it from their hard drives -- and general "buzz." It can track user tastes, correlating fans of Madonna with fans of Britney Spears, for example, and then (in more general file-swapping networks like Gnutella) seeing whether those fans also have pirated copies of Quake and the movie "X-Men." "In terms of positioning an artist, there are big opportunities," Garland says. "This is an industry that's anxious to sell a widget to you, and the first way to do that is to know who you are and what you're like."

A.D.D. Marketing has been using similar instant-messaging and market research tactics for several months now, as part of what it calls the "Peer-to-Peer Targeting Program." Explains Matt Wechsler, head of online marketing for A.D.D., "The ability to see into the mind-set of users is phenomenal. To know that your user has downloaded the top three singles of an artist, while opting not to download the rest of the album, is key information. It then becomes our job to convert this fringe-level fan to a dedicated, album-buying fan by forming a relationship between them and the artist in some way."

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In other words, you are being watched whenever you're on Napster by someone who wants to influence your buying habits (although Garland, at least, insists that BigChampagne does respect the privacy of Napster users, identifying them merely as "playlists" but not associating their names or log-ins with their profiles).

So is this what a Napster user can expect in the future? A barrage of instant messages from record labels and promoters, advertisements shoved in your face every few minutes and stealthy market researchers examining your hard drive for data that they can use to more effectively sell you pop culture? Sure, if you're a fan of Aimee Mann and want to nab her latest free tune, the promotion will be useful; but it's also inevitable that less principled marketers will start using this tool to push bands that you could not care less about. Your desktop could become a nest of open windows, the instant-messaging equivalent of spam. "As you can imagine, the potential for abuse is huge," admits Garland. "In a community like this one, a tool is only as good as its lowest-common-denominator user."

But Napster users have been getting their music for free, no strings attached, for over a year now; perhaps we shouldn't complain if the price of the service in the future is the acceptance of a few unsolicited messages. Napster, still battling the Recording Industry Association of America in the courts, needs to make amends with musicians and labels. And the "legal Napster" that Bertelsmann and Napster are promising will arrive this year -- likely to cost $5 a month or more -- will only be useful if the service contains music from all record labels, not just Bertelsmann's BMG service. Perhaps offering record labels unmitigated access to a database of millions of fans will be one way to smooth ruffled feathers and encourage everyone to work together.

As Wechsler sees it, "For a long time now, Napster has been seen as the end of the music industry as we know it. Yes, that is true. However, now I see labels starting to embrace the change and use it to their advantage as opposed to fighting evolution."

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After all, Aimee Mann was once one of the most vocal critics of Napster and its disregard for the wishes of artists. In fact, when I first called Mann's publicist to find out about the instant-messaging promotion, her response was incredulous. "To be honest, she's anti-Napster, so I don't know that she would do that," she scoffed.

But Michael Hausmann, Mann's manager and director of SuperEgo records, now sees the service in a new light. After being approached by BigChampagne to try out the promotion, he was delighted by its success. "The response rate has been incredible," he gushed, referring to the 1,700 new names he has added to Mann's mailing list. "Really, I think that if we could have some kind of relationship with the people who are downloading the songs, we'd feel a lot better about [Napster]."

Maybe we can all get along, after all. As Garland puts it, "There has to be a way that artists, fans and labels can win in this space. Then we'd all be drinking the big champagne. It's our hopeful but persistent belief that there's a solution here in the ether."


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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