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I disagree with this -- i was a very heavy Napster user in 99 and am a very heavy Spotify user (and, NB, they are a customer) today. Obviously it's a fun angle for a SXSW talk, but:

- The "depth of catalog" is actually incorrect -- Spotify has far far more songs than Napster did (you can see in that screenshot even, most logins/servers hit less than 1m songs totally available, and of course those are just total indexed, in reality almost 50% of downloads would not be available.) Yes, you could find niche stuff on Napster-- as a musician in 1999 I would make sure all my stuff was available, pre-release, demos, etc. But we have Soundcloud for that now, so...

- The discovery on Napster was non-existent. You could browse through a users' collection, the same way you can browse through playlists today. But the only entry into anything was a search box that only looked at ID3v1 data and filenames. There's been amazing leaps and bounds in discovery since then, and it's very clear by the #s that it's what people wanted -- a guided (radio, playlist) experience over a wild west single song retrieval thing.

- Napster was stupid bad at search. There obviously was no catalog resolution and the quality of the results was abysmal. I am pretty sure it was a substring match, for one, and then there was the bad metadata, fake songs, later on a huge spam / "SEO" problem.

- Not going to get into speed, because it wasn't Napster's fault, but even back then it was far easier to get music elsewhere other than Napster if possible. Ratio FTP sites, hotline, and of course bubblecruft startups building customer bases by selling new CDs for $4. It was very clear at the time even that the distributed nature of Napster was a liability, not a promise, as all the single-server solutions were far more convenient and reliable. But this was not their fault and of course their success inspired everything after it.




- most logins/servers hit less than 1m songs totally available

The backend servers were linked. If your request couldn't be fulfilled on one, your search was forwarded to the next server. The total number of files on Napster at its peek was over half a billion files. Further, that picture must have been from a server that just started because the average server had significantly more users/files on it.

Further, Napster users were ripping everything in sight. There were mp3 encodings of old wax cylinders uploaded for goodness sakes.

- The discovery on Napster was non-existent. You could browse through a users' collection, the same way you can browse through playlists today.

There was an entire curated music website dedicated to music discovery that loaded into the client.

The chat and instant message system allowed people to talk about music which created a massive music-focused community. It was wildly popular.

And don't underestimate browsing. People would search for the one song they were interested in, notice who they were downloading from, browse the other user and then start pulling down their music if they noticed several songs they liked in it. They then could send a message to that user and add them to a friend's list. That was not just music discovery, but friend discovery as well.

- I am pretty sure it was a substring match

The very first versions were substring match when there were maybe 10,000 users. Later version were not and allowed basic boolean queries like term exclusion.

- Not going to get into speed, because it wasn't Napster's fault, but even back then it was far easier to get music elsewhere other than Napster if possible

There was an algorithm on Napster that did network distance biasing. Basically, if you were an AOL user, you'd first get AOL users back when doing a search. If you were an Internet 2 or even @Home user however, your speeds were epic.

* Note: I built and ran the Napster server.


Note: I built and ran the Napster server.

I just want to say: thank you for building one of the most important inventions of our time. (Napster kickstarted the information sharing revolution.)


Usenet might wish to contest that claim :)


BBS's also functioned in a similar way before Usenet did.

That said, Napster made it all really easy. They also came along when CD drives were finally commonplace, and Winamp had seeded the ground by having people build up a library of MP3s beforehand.


I don't know, I remember Napster as being quite late to the party. Everyone I knew (geeks and some non geeks) had been happily using ratio FTPs for years (using usenet and irc to find them) and then later Audiogalaxy took care of the discovery problem. I also remember CD drives being fairly common by 1996/7 (it was CD burners that took a few years longer to hit sensible price points).

But its been a while so maybe my rose tinted glasses have munged things a bit! :)

And you're right, BBSes were doing similar things first (although I assume good ones were harder to find than usenet groups or irc chans - don't know because BBSes were before my time!) but of course the mp3 standard didn't exist back when they were at their zenith. MP3s only started appearing en-mass around 1997 I think (??). Before that, I remember every one used to share tiny wav and midi sound file clips on their homepages (my first ever homepage was made to share wav clips of simpsons and monty python dialogue - lol how embarassingly quaint!)


You know, you're probably right, I think I'm off about 2 years.

Yeah, in my BBS days I remember downloading MOD files and demo videos. I still remember being blown away by Future Crew.


I agree with this 100%. A lot of the music I still listen to today was discovered because of those chat rooms on Napster.

I miss it.


Oh wow hotline, that brings back some memories.

On a university network Napster was quite fast. I could routinely saturate my (for that time speedy) 10mbit connection, especially to other clients on Internet2.

One other point to your argument is social. The ability to see what friends are listening to and create sharable playlists is obviously something that Napster did not provide.


You had Internet2 in '99?


Yeah via Abilene: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abilene_Network

.edu to .edu transfer was unbelievably fast back in those days.


I was curious, so from Wikipedia: The Internet2 Project was originally established by 34 university researchers in 1996 under the auspices of EDUCOM (later EDUCAUSE), and was formally organized as the not-for-profit University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID) in 1997.


You may be a heavy user where "heavy" equals "frequent," but I don't think you're a heavy user where "heavy" equals "eclectic"[1]. Otherwise you'd have experienced firsthand just how useless Spotify is for music outside the mainstream, even (in contrast to what Aloisius said) when you already know exactly what you're looking for. In just the last few days there've been at least half a dozen[2] times when I wanted to listen to something and Spotify didn't have it. Napster never had this problem.

[1] Although I hate that word.

[2] Daughter - His Young Heart, Japandroids B-sides from the Post-Nothing sessions (Younger Us, Art Czars, and Heavenward Grand Prix), anything from Mirel Wagner or 9mm Parabellum Bullet, anything from The Lonely Forest's first three releases, Gotye - Like Drawing Blood (which is so much better than the album that finally made him famous), etc. Spotify is seriously lacking in terms of selection.


The one thing that file sharing sites excel at is finding niche materials by certain artists, such as b-sides and live shows or covers. Some of that stuff is quite excellent but almost impossible to find in a music store or on a music site.


Some of that stuff has probably never been released by a real label. I imagine it would be tricky just to figure out who even owns the rights, let alone secure them for digital distribution.


- The "depth of catalog" is actually incorrect -- Spotify has far far more songs than Napster did (you can see in that screenshot even, most logins/servers hit less than 1m songs totally available, and of course those are just total indexed, in reality almost 50% of downloads would not be available.) Yes, you could find niche stuff on Napster-- as a musician in 1999 I would make sure all my stuff was available, pre-release, demos, etc. But we have Soundcloud for that now, so...

The numbers depend on when one took the screenshot. Here's part of one I took on 02/02/2001 23:32PM CST with more than a million files available:

https://1e400.net/i/BP6LdMPm/napster.png


You are correct, I believe Spotify is much better than Napster was in 1999. But there are still huge flaws with Spotify. It's collection is often missing songs due to licensing issues. I'm tired of seeing songs greyed-out because they are "unavailable" where I live. Spotify's search leaves much to be desired (Napster's wasn't amazing either, however).

But I think the essence of what Sean Parker was saying was that there are still many hurdles that a legal system like Spotify will have to overcome. If you really want everything without restrictions, pirating is still a better option.




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