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Listen.Com Flirts With Napster Links

Rebel without a mandate? Listen.com fails to run its Napster strategy past either its major label investors or Napster

Listen.com, a music directory service partly funded by major record labels, is shedding a little of its squeaky-clean image with a new song-search service that plugs directly into Napster’s software.

The new service replicates all the music search and recommendation functions of Listen.com’s Web site but lives on an individual’s PC desktop. The company has added a function that triggers the Napster application, booting up the file-swapping service to help find music reviewed or recommended by Listen.com.

The company did not run the idea past either Napster or its major label investors, executives said.

Even in the unauthorised, test version now on the site, it’s the first time the gap has been closed between the sprawling Napster download service and the mainstream services serving as guides to the often bewildering maze of online music. For Listen.com, which has kept squarely on the side of authorised music, it’s also a first visible nod to the reality that online music lovers have flocked to Napster’s service instead of directories of authorised music.

But some analysts say they’ve likely gone too far.

“This is not a copyright-friendly demonstration of technology,” said PJ McNealy, a Gartner analyst. “I think they’re shooting themselves in the foot.”

Listen.com has been among the leaders of a generation of online music companies born just before the advent of Napster. Launched as a music portal that would recommend, review and point to legal music on the Web, it saw much of its potential consumer audience shrivel when Napster’s service came along.

The company has adjusted to new marketplace realities with an old Net tactic: It’s gone “business-to-business”, syndicating its directory service and new products including Web radio to other sites such as Lycos, Excite@Home and iWon.com. It flirted briefly with file-swapping services once before, bidding on the assets of bankrupt Napster rival Scour, but lost that auction to CenterSpan Communications.

Nevertheless, the convergence of file-swapping sites and music directory services has already begun, as executives on both sides of the business have realised that consumers use the two types of services in conjunction with each other. Napster bought struggling music recommendation service Gigabeat last week, with the aim of providing recommendations inside a promised subscription service the company hopes to launch by summer.

The Napster link seemed a logical first step because many music lovers are clearly using both services, said Listen.com president Sean Ryan. Helping them find music made more sense than ignoring them, he noted.

Listen.com’s new software is as much marketing device as genuine product, however. Ryan calls the service a “proof of concept”, demonstrating Listen.com’s ability to serve as a gateway or “user interface” for any other music subscription or download service.

“Our view is that [computer] users are going to search however they’re going to search,” Ryan said. “They’re going to use the applications they need to do that.”

Although Ryan said the company is confident that the feature has stayed on the right side of the law, analysts such as McNealy predict that this version of Listen.com’s software may have a lifespan measured in days or hours.

Other services that have plugged into file-swapping networks, such as Angry Coffee and Bertelsmann-owned Snoopstar’s peer-to-peer search engines, have been taken offline. The Recording Industry Association of America has pressured most commercial file-swapping companies to remove or limit their services, and none of the big consumer portals has yet dared to add any kind of file-swapping search engine.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a statement from [RIAA chief executive] Hilary Rosen on this in the morning,” McNealy said.

Executives from Napster and the RIAA were not immediately available for comment.

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