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Math Is Done: Napster To Go Doesn't Add Up

Aside from the pay-to-listen requirement, Napster To Go songs can be stored on only three computers and three music players at a time, and they can't be burned to CD at all. (Making unrestricted copies of these downloads should be a trivial exercise, but it would also break the service's rules.)

The Napster To Go selection doesn't match the inventory of songs Napster actually sells. The service estimates that "about 90 percent" of that catalogue is available under the To Go program -- blame the usual licensing issues for this -- but the utter randomness of that selection makes this feel worse than it is. For example, on a Rolling Stones compilation, "Tumbling Dice" can be rented, but "Wild Horses," just a year older, can only be bought.

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All that said, using Napster To Go offered the same frictionless consumption I remember from the original, free Napster service. Want to tune in to music from strange genres or check out a band just because it has an interesting name? Why not? It won't cost you extra.

It wasn't until after my initial binge that I thought a bit more about the virtues of this service. What Napster's ads ignore is that most people already own a significant music collection -- so how many songs will they grab once they sign onto this service? How about after the first month or year? Even the most manic downloader has to slow down eventually.

Napster To Go's $15 monthly bills, however, will keep coming due for as long as you care to listen to your downloads. And over time, those fees add up, too.

Consider this example: I have been purchasing CDs for about 20 years now, in which time I've accumulated about 300 of the things. At an average of $15 each, I've spent $4,500. Now suppose that, instead of buying those CDs, I could have opened up a Napster To Go account back in 1985. My total bill would be $3,600 and counting -- and although I might have accumulated a larger, more diverse collection, I wouldn't own any of it.

I have a hard time accepting that. At its best, music has the same lasting value as books or paintings or any other sort of meaningful art: It isn't a disposable good that you use and then forget about. It's something that you keep listening to and discovering new things in. When music is good, you want to know that it can't be taken away from you.

Napster To Go doesn't allow for that. And when you realize this point, it looks less like a service that allows you to pay to get new music and more like one that forces you to pay to keep your existing music.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

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