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Will Napster Become the Ultimate CD-Recording Software?

Bob Starrett

November 27, 2020 | After months of litigation, threatening to turn into years and moving the digital copyright battle to the United States Supreme Court, Bertlesman Music Group (BMG) finally broke ranks with the other "major" record labels and made a deal with Napster. The deal calls for Napster to implement a secure subscription-based music delivery service, and Bertlesman will in turn invest an estimated $50 million in Napster in exchange for warrants entitling it to take a minority ownership position in the company. BMG will make its entire music catalog available for access on Napster. BMG is cajoling the other labels to join it and ultimately they may. But not until Napster apologizes to Metallica's long-suffering Lars Ulrich, as Hillary Rosen requested in a recent letter to Napster CEO Hank Barry. (True story.)

Bertlesman, I am supposing, is more technically aware than the other members of the Big Five (Sony, Universal, EMI, and Time Warner). Despite links with hip divisions or sister companies, the lines of communication between divisions in these companies appear unused or non-existent. Bertlesman is moving ahead; the other players are likely to balk. But when and if the other four record companies join with Bertlesman and Napster to create a giant music distribution system, whether subscription or membership-based, the Napster client has the potential to be the most powerful music recording package available. And when that happens, it will shake the CD-Audio recording software business to its core.

Now, we have seen the traditional CD recording packages becoming more and more audio-enabled, with additions of WAV editors, track splitters, noise filters, and other accoutrements. We've also seen new editions becoming ever more "skin-like," visually emulating Web-distributed MP3 players and jukeboxes, which have in turn begun adding CD-Audio recording capability.

So what does Napster have to do with CD recording? We all know that when it comes to getting tunes, Napster is by far the easiest to use program around. And of course, it's free. With the Bertleseman blessing, and plenty of cash, Shaun Fanning and his gang will be able to concentrate on the software, improving it and enhancing its functionality. One seemingly logical improvement would be to add CD-Audio recording capability. Imagine how many Napster users have CD-RW drives. Then imagine searching for your favorite tunes with Napster, cueing them up in several "jobs," and watching Napster automatically recording each group of songs to CD as soon as its downloaded. Once done, the CD is ejected and you load another blank. As soon as the next open job fills from the download, the next CD is recorded.

Now, some people argue that if you want to make sure that your audio disc is going to be of good listening quality, that you have to listen to every song before you record it. Certainly this isn't something we would have tried a few years back, but I feel much more at ease putting my faith in software and hardware these days, trusting that it will rip and record properly in most situations. And, with media almost as free as music these days, this model of a CD-R-capable Napster matches perfectly with today's recording reality.

Other features of a recording-enhanced Napster could be the ability to identify a song by running the uploader-listed name through CDDB to match the name of the song and then download the exact song name. This information could then automatically be used to insert the track names into a CD-Text field and the track name would thus be available for the creation of a CD-Text audio disc.

Of course, the success of the whole Napster model up until now was also largely dependent on the fact that users had the proper ripping tools and could make good clean MP3 copies of their CD source material. The new model should encourage users to rip and encode at an acceptable MP3 bit-rate of at least 128kbps. So besides recording, the Napster client could have ripping capability and require a minimum file quality in order for the song to be listed on the service.

This, of course, brings up the possibility of a hybrid setup where the Napster client is required to rip the song and, during the process, insert a watermark or other restriction into the file. This is the road to failure. Bertlesman was forward-thinking enough to see the value of Napster as it is, and that to keep it successful, the company must resist the temptation of turn the service into a giant vault of protected music. That's the whole point of charging users a fee; the music does not have to be protected.

Of course, there has been no definitive word from either Napster or Bertlesman on what the business model will be. Will today's free and easy sharing fall by the wayside? Will encrypted formats be used to prevent Napster-acquired MP3s from being recorded to CD, as with Liquid Audio?

Bertlesman and Napster would do well to remember that the popularity of Napster depends on the fact that the format used is MP3, meaning no digital rights management issues for end-users; any recording program can make discs from the downloaded material. An MP3 is an MP3 and there are no restrictions on recording it. Whatever model comes about for the BMG-era Napster, if users pay a fee of any type, then the songs that they download should be unencumbered by watermarks or any other type of recording restrictions. And then Napster could become the ultimate audio recording package, and catapult CD-R into the center of the music mainstream.

Bob Starrett (bobs@cdpage.com) is a contributing editor for EMedia Magazine and co-columnist for The CD Writer, and an independent consultant based in Denver, Colorado. He is the co-author, with EMedia Magazine contributor Joshua McDaniel, of The Little CD Audio Recording Book, published by PeachPit Press.
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