The drama of Napster's legal death sentence and its quick stay of execution has catapulted the online music-swapping company's site into the list of the Internet's most popular destinations.
According to ratings firm Media Metrix, more people visited Napster.com last week than they did Amazon.com, long one of the best-known brands on the Web.
Yet experts aren't sure what that surge in popularity means. Napster and other programs like Gnutella and Scour Exchange are downloaded from the Web but don't actually use the Web to trade files. Thus, Web site traffic numbers don't paint an adequate picture of how many people are actually using the software downloaded from individual sites.
The surge in Web traffic almost certainly stemmed from the thousands of people drawn by nationwide front-page headlines, the professional number-crunchers
"It's like a clearance sale. Everybody wanted to get a good deal while it was occurring," said Bruce Ryon, senior vice president at Media Metrix. "It will be interesting to see how the Web traffic translates into future use."
That, of course, is the $10 billion question. The future of the online music industry depends on how attached mainstream consumers have become to Napster's free-download, file-sharing model. Analysts say it will be more difficult to wean people away from Napster or other alternatives the more attached they become to the software.
Napster says it had 20 million user accounts by mid-month, before the week's surge in traffic and downloads. That's probably an overestimate, as Media Metrix counted only 4.7 million active home Napster users in June. But even the lower figure is a substantial--and fast-growing--slice of the online listening audience.
In the past week, the company jumped from the No. 31 spot online to the 19th-most-visited Web site, beating out longtime favorite Amazon. Media Metrix rival Nielsen/NetRatings showed a similar spike in Napster's traffic, as well as a surge in the proportion of visitors downloading the Napster software.
"The record companies have kind of blown it," said Malcom Maclachlan, an analyst with International Data Corp. "They've completely lost the ability to train music listeners into the kind of online consumption patterns that would be beneficial to them."
But in this arena, as in everything statistics-related, online music companies are hampered by a lack of good data.
Throughout the Napster trial, the record industry and Napster have flung statistics back and forth, saying that record sales either had dropped or had risen as a result of Napster's existence. Federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who is presiding over the Napster case, said last week that she had questions about the methodology, and thus the usefulness, of each study.
It's also proving difficult to get accurate figures on how many people are actually using the Napster software itself, and for what.
Media Metrix tracks software use as well as Web site traffic. But the numbers are slow to come out, as there has been less demand for this service. In June, 4.67 million people used the Napster software at home, and only 760,000 people used the software at work, Ryon said.
T.S. Kelly, Nielsen/NetRatings' director of new media, said his company would
track applications like Napster in their service with the next release of their software, due out in the fourth quarter of this year.