At a time when start-ups are sinking millions into marketing, employing everything from costumed skydivers to logo-wrapped cars to generate buzz, Napster presents a frustrating example of autopilot PR.
At a time when start-ups are sinking millions into marketing,
employing everything from costumed skydivers to logo-wrapped cars to
generate buzz, Napster presents a frustrating example of autopilot
Without spending a dime on advertising and without the aid of either an
in-house communications pro or outside agency counsel for the first
seven months of its existence, the San Mateo-based start-up managed to
become one of the most popular sites on the Internet. Among the coveted
college and young-adult demographic, Napster achieved - seemingly
overnight - name recognition rivaling giants like eBay, Yahoo! and
However, as with most Internet success stories, there’s more PR to the
Napster phenomenon than meets the eye. And PR promises to play an even
greater role as the company faces its greatest test: a continuing legal
battle with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) that
threatens its very existence.
Obviously, the fact that Napster’s software (which enables users to swap
MP3 music files online) doesn’t cost a dime sparked its initial
popularity among the college crowd, a place where hardcore music fans
and high-speed Internet connections coexist. ’The whole thing is really
a no-brainer,’ says Jim Welte, a Business 2.0 staff reporter who covers
’We all know the best PR trick in the world is to yell, ’Hey, we got
free shit over here!’ If Wal-mart decided to open its doors and give
everything inside away, we would write about it, too.’
Of course, as word of Napster spread like wildfire on college campuses,
it was practically inevitable that journalists would come sniffing
around for a story. Add to that the technology angle, with Napster’s
software responsible for launching a new category of ’peer-to-peer’
computing, along with the David-and-Goliath aspect of 19-year-old
founder Shawn Fanning’s battle against the big bad record companies, and
it all adds up to an irresistible news hook.
’Basically, we walked into a situation where it was wall-to-wall calls
all day, everyday,’ recalls Dan Wool, a former account director for
mPRm, the Los Angeles PR firm Napster hired in February to handle the
growing torrent of media queries. A second agency, New York-based Girlie
Action, was also enlisted to juggle consumer and music press. ’Up until
about three months ago, the work was 99% reactive in nature,’ Wool
’But to do reactive PR strategically is a whole challenge in and of
According to mPRm VP Julie Gladders, one of the first orders of business
for Napster was simply determining how to talk to its various
’When we were hired, the company did not have its core messages
developed, nor did it have anyone in-house handling PR,’ she says. Adds
Girlie Action partner Jill Mango, who has been responsible for securing
coverage in Vanity Fair and USA Today, the initial challenge was
combating the myth that Napster was a Web site where consumers
’downloaded’ music. To that end, the agency drafted up a media fact
sheet clearly explaining how Napster worked.
Pirate or populist?
With the business press, the challenge came in recasting Napster from a
renegade company geared at ’aiding and abetting piracy,’ as the RIAA has
charged, to a company ’at the forefront of a paradigm shift in the music
industry,’ that was actually ’helping CD sales rather than hurting
them,’ says Gladders.
In addition, when Metallica filed a copyright infringement lawsuit
against Napster last April, mPRm corralled the head of KNAC.com, a
popular heavy metal Web site, to speak with media about how the fans
were reacting to the band’s actions. ’We knew that if fans were not
happy, any bands that were considering suing Napster would think twice,’
The vocal show of Napster support from major music stars such as
Courtney Love, Chuck D. and Prince has also played a key role in the
success of its public image - especially as Metallica raged against it.
And as you might expect, most of these endorsements didn’t simply land
on the company’s doorstep. At the very least, both Girlie Action and
mPRm provided reporters with names and access to pro-Napster artists,
many of whom just happened to be on Girlie’s client roster. And in some
cases, deals, such as the sponsorship of a concert tour by rap-rock band
Limp Bizkit, were actually brokered by Napster marketing VP Liz Brooks.
’The free Limp Bizkit tour was absolute genius for both sides,’ says
Spin assistant editor Greg Milner.
Whether it was the messaging or the artist endorsements, most of the
Napster coverage up until lately has had an arguably positive tilt.
As Salon.com asserts in a recent article, ’Too often the complicated
dispute between the online start-up and the music industry has been
painted in the most simplistic terms - a reductive tale of
forward-thinking entrepreneurs outsmarting head-in-the-sand record label
Even more surprising, perhaps, is the generally forgiving treatment
Napster received from the business press. What with the company’s dearth
of concrete moneymaking strategies, you might think at least one of the
so-called ’new economy’ pubs might have taken a closer look under the
’I admit that Napster is much more of an interesting technology story
than a business story,’ says Business 2.0’s Welte. ’And the fact that
they have no business model and are not making any money just adds to
their defense that they, unlike the record companies, aren’t in this
just to make money.’
But Napster’s free media ride may have come to an end. While a stay of
Judge Marilyn Hall Patel’s original July 26 ruling halted an injunction
against the company, legal pundits predict that RIAA will ultimately
prevail in court. A defeat in court would be a death knell, as Napster
would be limited to hosting online chats and swapping files of unsigned
With so much at stake, it’s no surprise a third PR expert has joined the
Napster mix. Rikki Seidman, a Washington, DC crisis and litigation
support expert who acted as a media adviser on Bill Clinton’s 1992
presidential campaign, was brought on board in June. However, some
industry watchers think this may be too little, too late.
Dismounting the high horse
’Napster is saying, ’We’re abiding by the rules, but the users are the
ones violating the copyright laws,’ but the only reason people use their
site is to do illegal activity,’ says Steve Honig, SVP for the corporate
digital entertainment group of Bender Helper Impact in Los Angeles.
’They need to get off their high horse; what they should be saying is,
’Hey guys, the technology just got ahead of the business model,’ and the
focus should be on finding the solution now.’
Further, as BusinessWeek chronicled in an August 14 cover story, when
Judge Patel issued the July 26 edict ordering Napster to halt
file-trading, Seidman and company were caught ’completely unprepared.’
Ultimately, it took two full days after the ruling for Napster to issue
a full statement, according to BusinessWeek, which concluded that the
one-time media darling is no longer.
No matter what happens, one thing is certain: Napster has opened the
door and others will follow. The appearance of newcomers such as
Gnutella, Scour and AppleSoup prove that peer-to-peer is the
business-to-business buzz of the future, and a whole new raft of PR
opportunities awaits the veterans of the Napster craze.
In-house PR team: Liz Brooks, VP of marketing; Josef Robey, PR
External agencies: mPRm (LA) handles business and technology press;
Girlie Action (NY) handles consumer and music press; TSD (Washington,
DC) handles crisis communications and litigation support.