Why Napster was All That(TM)

Jennifer and I were talking last night over dinner (pork-apple sausages and risoto…mmm) and we started comparing notes about what made the early days of music sharing so engaging. Well, that’s not what we started talking about, but that’s where we wound up, and as we talked it over, we kind of came to one of those “aha!” moments when we both realized that what we loved about the early days was the relative openess of the sharing (no fear of reprisal) and the ability to find new music through people whose tastes we trusted. These weren’t friends, but people whose collections we could look through and then sample something we’d never ever heard before.

For us (and I suspect a lot of other people), that’s what it was all about. Finding NEW stuff, not buying the same old shit you’ve heard played to death (and then ressucitated and played to death again) on top-40 radio. The music stores that exist today (even iTMS, for as good an experience as it provides) fall down hard when presented with this task. Apple has tried to get some of this back with “celebrity play lists”, but that’s a poor excuse for searching preferences by preference nexus. That was the really powerful thing: being able to search, in essence, for other people who had the same tastes you did based on what they already had that you had (or wanted) in common. For instance, I would have NEVER found The Samples if I hadn’t found someone that loved Better Than Ezra the same way I did. They’re not the same kind of band by any stretch, but it doesn’t matter. I trusted that persons taste, not some shared cultural norm we were expected to share.

Music discovery through trust networks. It’s better than collaborative filtering because it lets you have complete control over who is a “celebrity” in your world. The filtering happens because you find a nexus, and find things that are, mathematically speaking, close in vector space.

This is the next big addition to music stores. Apple has taken the wrong tack with Billboard Top 40 playlists that you can purchase. Whoever builds a trust network for taste is going to have their margins be a hell of a lot higher with small artists, which should let them give the bird to the big labels at some point in the future when the best part of their business becomes a music ecosystem where they provide the platform for. Taste is a fickle thing, and the labels have tried for decades (with varying degrees of success) to determine who and what should get a shot at the “big time”. What Napster showed us was that there’s a viable market for the small time and that it only thrives when “taste transaction” or “taste accumulation” costs decrease below some threshold well below the cost of getting into a Clear Channel rotation.

So how do we get to point b? My first inclination is to write an add-on to iTunes or a daemon that uses the iTunes database. iTunes is the first application to really make use of ID3 tags (and the metadata sections of other formats) to get a coherent view of your music collection. Generally speaking, this means that most people have pretty good metadata on at least one aspect of their files (title, artist, genre, or something else). Any of these aspects is enough to start making connections with. Best case, any such tool could query iTMS (or a similar music store service) to determine availability of the track (or tracks by the same artist, etc…). I guess what I’m proposing isn’t peer-to-peer file sharing, it’s peer-to-peer preference sharing with good-ole-capitalism as the logical endpoint. Another option is to VPN-enable this kind of tool and use iTunes builtin streaming capability to give such a tool “preview” capability. It’s a frigging direct marketing nirvana: consumers don’t really have to make their own decisions (they still get to rely on someone else to tell them what’s good), and there’s an approved point of purchase. It falls down, however, if iTMS (or whatever store backend) can’t get enough of the requested content. Having smaller artists as a part of the ecosystem is the only thing that’s going to make it work long-term.

Now if only I had spare time to implement this in…