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Napster brand
 

Napster


  Napster
9 lives
by Fred Burt
April 22, 2002

In 1976 the Sex Pistols exploded into the UK spotlight with a live appearance on Thames TV’s Today program. Host Bill Grundy goaded the band to "say something outrageous." Pistols guitarist Steve Jones obliged with a few choice words, the press went mad, and the history of popular music (not to mention TV profanity) was changed forever. The Pistols reached Number One in the UK charts the next year with “God Save The Queen”…or at least they would have had the music establishment not decided that there would be no Number One that week.

 
 

The irony is, of course, that the band’s fame was, in part, propelled by this act of repression and by the same music establishment that wanted to see the end of kids who wore black bin liners, stuck safety pins through their noses, spat and tattooed "No Future" across their foreheads. They should have known better – bad behavior in the music industry always sells well.

Napster, the Internet music file-sharing service, which took the world by storm through its ingenious anti-establishment technology, is no exception. Download the software, enter “Anarchy in the UK” and you could be pogo-ing at your PC while Johnny Rotten & Co. scream “I use the best, I use the rest/ I use the enemy, I use AN-AR-CHY.” We were all, for a short, utopian moment raising a middle finger Pistols-style as we used the Sonys and EMIs of the world to get our music for free.

It didn’t take long for the backlash, and now Napster is paralyzed by billion-dollar lawsuits from the industry – claiming they have behaved very badly – and feuding minority investors. However, the industry is now trying to cash in on Napster’s notoriety. Thomas Middelhoff, chief executive of Bertelsmann, the German media group who formed an alliance with Napster and now has a bid in to buy out the original shareholders, has stated that they want to take full ownership of the business and build on the “strength of the brand.”

Napster, I would venture to say, is one of the strongest Internet brands we have seen so far. One of the reasons Napster receives so much attention is that it has always been more than a music delivery channel. A quiet but determined crew-cut, code-cracking teenager, who loves his music and resents the industry that produces it for such vast profits, sets his mind on undermining the suits. What starts out as a game escalates as hundreds of thousands of like-minded music geeks join his quest to cut out the middlemen. The authorities get wind, track him down, break down doors, arrest him… Classic plot for a movie. The point is that Napster is notorious for a reason – it’s a story, a mission. It’s not just a website and certainly not just clever software.

Of course, Bertelsmann is looking for the happy ending by building on this brand but what does this mean for the future of Napster. How can Bertelsmann, the former enemy, get involved in what was essentially an underground music community? The danger is that they become the try-hard parents pretending to like their kids’ music. They will either never be believed, or if they are, their kids will silently but quickly move on to something less sad.

The wider issue is that the music industry as a whole, and Bertelsmann in particular, needs to ensure that “piracy” via the web is controlled. The problem is that Napster was the ultimate pirate brand. Even its devilish logo shouts out anti-establishment and the customers who buy into the Napster brand are essentially rebels with a cause. Trying to cozy up to the pirates could provoke the sort of anti-corporate consumer backlash that Gap and Nike have seen, and not only lead to a failure of a relaunched Napster, but also encourage young music listeners to download their music from more trustworthy, relevant sources (such as the bands themselves).

Napster’s mission? Trustworthiness? Relevance? We’re talking the fundamentals of brand strategy. Brands, of course, live from inside businesses as well as in the minds of the consumer. At the core of any revival, therefore, will need to be management and a team that lives and breathes the Napster story and the Napster mission. The fear is that the brand will have its wings clipped by a suspicious corporate parent who is watching too closely.

Whatever we are presented with regarding Napster’s future, we will almost certainly lose some of the delicious sense of the maverick genius to the men in suits. Whether there is still the potential to protect some of the sense of the Napster rebel remains to be seen. There is the language that it employs to speak to its audience (which will need to replace the apologetic naughty-schoolboy tone on the website at the moment), there is the music that Napster promotes, and there is the design of the “retail space,” which in this case is the website.

But Bertelsmann will have to go further. Napster ruled because it broke the rules. Bertelsmann needs to position Napster very delicately and enable it to continue breaking the rules without breaking the law…or spiraling out of control like its punk forefathers.

 
     
  

Fred Burt is Managing Director at international digital brand management consultancy BrandWizard Technologies.

  
     
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