Napster Usage Plummets as Screening Technology Takes Hold

Napster is by no means dead, but the latest usage numbers show the revolutionary song-swapping service is a vastly reduced version of its former bad-boy self.

An analysis by the Internet research firm Webnoize found that Napster use has plunged 41 percent since the online company added song-screening technology to comply with a federal court order.

Users downloaded 1.59 billion songs in April, a sharp decline from 2.8 billion in February, according to Matt Bailey, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Webnoize.

Hank Barry, Napster's chief executive, said the Webnoize numbers illustrate users' loyalty despite the screening, and don't reflect a dying company.

"The most striking fact in the latest Webnoize study is the high number of music consumers who remain loyal to file sharing," Barry said Wednesday. "Close to 8 million people are using Napster each day with an average of over 1 million using the service at any given time."

A million users would be a success for many Internet companies, but it represents a sharp decline in activity for Napster, which has hobbled itself in response to the music industry's copyright suit.

Napster, a dorm-room experiment that revolutionized the music business, is now struggling to retain its vast user base as it employs tough new screening technology to inhibit the trading of copyright songs.

In March, users shared 220 song files on average. By April, they shared 37 on average, a decline of more than 80 percent, according to Bailey.

And since last week, many more songs have been blocked. Napster now screens for a wide range of variations in artist and song names that had allowed copyright music to reappear in its index.

"That, in turn, has unfortunately caused substantial additional 'overblocking,' the unintentional removal of otherwise authorized works, for which we apologize to our users and artists," Napster told its fans.

The Recording Industry Association of America, which sued Redwood City-based Napster for copyright infringement, said the report does not prove the company is fulfilling its part of the judge's order to remove copyrighted works from its site.

"I don't view that as a significant change," said Matt Oppenheim, the recording industry trade group's senior vice president for business and legal affairs. "If those numbers are representative of the amount of downloads, it (says) there is still a substantial amount of piracy going on Napster."

There were indeed fewer files being traded in April, and fewer people doing it.

In February, the zenith of Napster use in the short life-span of the company, there were nearly 1.6 million people logged on to Napster at any given time. In April, there were just more than 1 million users logged on, and they were trading a smaller selection of music, Bailey said.

Napster is now a shell of its former self in terms of finding hit songs easily.

Napster, with financial backing from the music industry giant Bertlesmann AG, has sought to shed its renegade image and enter into partnerships with other major music companies, with limited success.

Now, Napster users often come up empty when they search for even slight variations in the names of many well-known artists and songs — a development that also blocks legitimate music by lesser-known artists with similar names and titles.

Matt Plotkin, a high school senior in West Hills, Calif., said he has had to work a lot harder to find songs from his favorite artists such as rap group Black Eyed Peas and electronic music specialist DJ Tauscher.

Users can still find the music they're looking for "as long as you don't type in the band name," Plotkin said. "If you just type in the song title you might get it. Or you can leave out a word."