Much has been written recently about former Napster front-man Sean Parker's email to the founders of Spotify, but I couldn't really resist chiming in myself to make a few quick points. For those of you who haven't read the letter you can find it here.
To start, the email comes off as written by something of a megalomaniac (which increases his chances of reading this, right?). Mr. Parker drops the word Napster in his email a staggering 16 times. That's just shy of 1% for you keyword saturation nerds. And it becomes immediately clear that in Sean Parker's world Napster was the last reasonable way to share and listen to music until Spotify launched. Here's some of what he has to say about the competition that bridged the two (admittedly groundbreaking) services:
- For obvious reasons, none of the decentralized P2P products (Kazaa, etc) could ever approach the usability of Napster.
- The subscription products were doomed to fail on all counts due to annoying DRM
- The pay-per-download products (iTunes, etc) still don't take into account the way people really consume music: they have priced themselves out of the market
- all of these products have lacked the basic usability (speed/responsiveness) that the world came to expect from Napster!
I'm certainly not going to say that any of these services lacked major problems, but it's absurd to completely disregard them because of their obvious flaws when each platform came with major innovations of it's own. What's immediately obvious about each of the systems tossed aside in his email is that they were all insanely popular with users at their respective peaks. What's also worth pointing out is that Napster itself was a joke from a user experience point of view. (he himself makes reference to Napster's "messy interface" on page two of the email). People used it not because of how wonderful it was, but because it was the only viable choice at the time, which was the case with many of the services mentioned.
So while all of this stuff is just kind of annoying at face value, what it seems to answer is a question that has nagged at me for years. Why did Facebook never properly compete with MySpace when it came to music? Music was one of MySpace's strong points. It is one of the few remaining reasons the service hasn't been shut down entirely. Don't get me wrong, it's 2011. MySpace doesn't matter. It's not a threat to anybody, least of all Facebook. But I'm not talking about 2011. I'm talking about 2004 & 2005 when Sean Parker was arguably one of the most influential people inside Facebook itself. Why would one of the forefathers of social music sharing let such a major opportunity slip by? His email answers some of these questions.
- Most of these deals would have resulted in the wrong user experience and I've done my best to stop them where they didn't make sense.
- rather than dive in again, I adopted a "watch and wait" philosophy
- as I mentioned we've already passed on iTunes, LaLa,etc.
In today's climate the pressure to ship a product is often highlighted as being paramount to everything, profit and feature refinement included. What seems likely here is that to Sean Parker, Napster was his rush to the market. It was the most innovative music tool around, and existed in that state for just a few short years before being overtaken by legal threats and competition alike.
Facebook almost certainly missed something in finding itself wrapped up in his patience. But none of that is likely to matter now. Facebook excelled everywhere else, destroyed its competition (able-bodied in music sharing or otherwise) and is in a prime position to make partnerships to integrate the features and products of ships that have already sailed. And what of Sean Parker now, two years after he wrote the words that are today being scrutinized both here and elsewhere around the web? His email led to a seat on Spotify's board, he made a significant financial investment in the company, and he has a direct channel to the ears of those who are leading the next social music revolution.