Napster Returns as Best Buy's Streaming Music Muscle [Updated]

Napster, the original file-sharing site that set the digital music world into a tailspin, is making yet another phoenix-like return to life from the ashes of its former self. This time it's as a music streaming site, and it's got Best Buy's muscle behind it.

Napster and Best BuyBest Buy purchased Napster for $121 million in September of last year from former owners Roxio, and took until today to reinvent the site. The new, U.S.-only Napster doesn't let you download MP3 files, it streams them to your computer, live. Before you start thinking that sounds like a rip-off, consider this: It costs just $5 per month for an unlimited number of streams. And you get to keep five of the tracks as CD-quality downloads for as long as you like.

That's bound to earn the interest of the other big MP3-store players, including Apple, Amazon, eMusic, and possibly Microsoft (the Zune Pass subscription service lets you stream an unlimited amount of music, and keep 10 tracks as downloads, but costs $15). Napster's archive includes over 7 million tracks from major and minor record labels, and the service also streams 60 "commercial free" radio stations, and has a 50-year Billboard chart archive.

The press release has Julie Owen, SVP of Entertainment at Best Buy crowing: "The brand that started it all is shaking things up again with this new service." That's an oblique reference to the copyright violation claims and legal challenges that had the original free file-sharing Napster shut down in 2001, before it was reborn with a failed subscription model in 2002 and then went bankrupt. The music industry really put the boot in with Napster--and has maintained the same overly-aggressive stance ever since...and yet here's major retailer Best Buy resurrecting the name and embracing the cheap distribution of millions of MP3s.

Although the new Napster merely streams the tracks to your PC, there is a whole armful of software out there, for free, that lets you hijack the stream. That effectively short-circuits the security so you can keep an unlimited number of MP3 tracks--albeit at a very low quality--for a tiny amount of computing effort...which, as Alanis Morissette might sing, is pretty "ironic, don't you think?"

[via Napster.com]

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Updated:

A Napster representative got in touch with us after seeing this post, and the guys at Napster want to make it clear that with the new service you can also pay to download as many tracks per month as you like, in addition to the five free ones and the unlimited streaming. It's acting just like any other MP3 service, and has similar pricing: From $0.69 to $1.29 for a single track. That's also the price for any non-subscribers visiting Napster from tonight. This is pretty interesting news, as that pricing pitches the new Best Buy-backed service against big boys iTunes and Amazon--with that added unlimited streaming angle. Looks like the bad boy of internet music sharing has finally grown up.

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