Music streaming service Napster had its latest change of ownership in May, when it was acquired by web3 companies Hivemind and Algorand. Now it’s got a new CEO too.
That’s Jon Vlassopulos, formerly global head of music at Roblox until he left the games company in April this year. He’s no stranger to the Napster brand, however.
20 years ago, Vlassopulos was part of the business development team at Bertelsmann that invested in the original incarnation of Napster in a doomed attempt to turn it from a filesharing pariah into a licensed partner for the music industry.
Since then, he’s worked for companies including telco AT&T Wireless, TV producer Endemol Shine and mobile agency Skyrockit, as well as founding music-related startups Fab·fm and Tastemates.
The Roblox role saw him forging partnerships with artists and labels to hold virtual performances and build experiences on the gaming platform. Now he’ll be aiming to win the industry over for Napster’s latest reinvention: as a web3 music company.
We already know a bit about that thanks to the publication of a ‘litepaper’ in June which set out ambitions to “launch as a decentralised music-first ecosystem to the benefit of fans, music makers and rights holders” including a $NAPSTER token and a “range of tools to establish, build and manage a super-connected fanbase” for artists.
Vlassopulos’s job is to put that into practice, drawing on his post-Roblox experiences as an investor fielding pitches from all manner of web3 music startups.
“I’ve been pitched most, if not all of the web3 music projects, and I think there have been a lot of phenomenal projects and a lot of innovation happening, but what’s been missing is a lot more scale,” he told Music Ally ahead of the announcement this morning.
“Labels and artists want to know they can trust that whatever entity they work with is going to be around and has the ability to handle more than a couple of projects.”
In fact, Napster will be taking stakes in some of those early-stage web3 projects – and even acquiring some of the startups – through a new investment arm called Napster Ventures.
That was one of four announcements made today, with Vlassopulos’s appointment one of the others. Napster is also launching an artist development fund to help musicians dip their toes in the web3 waters, and is announcing that it has raised a funding round of its own too from a group of investment funds (including its new co-owners).
At the heart of all this will sit Napster’s own service. Napster 2.0, if you like: the licensed streaming service that eventually emerged from the ashes of Napster 1.0, the original filesharing platform.
Napster 2.0 was legit, but it was always a mid-tier streaming service rather than truly challenging the likes of Spotify. At the end of 2020 it only had 1.2 million monthly active users.
That figure was revealed in a financial filing by MelodyVR, the virtual-reality music startup that was in the process of merging with Napster at the time.
The plan was to work towards a Napster 3.0 that would combine music streams with live performances (which was MelodyVR’s business). However, in May 2022 Hivemind and Algorand announced their surprise acquisition, and the emphasis switched to web3.
“The plan is to have this hybrid consumer on-ramp where it’s not too new, but not too old,” said Vlassopulos. “We want to have the things that they [listeners] are used to doing in a service, but then start to layer in new things.”
Yes, NFTs will be included: some kind of marketplace for artists to sell their NFTs, as well as some of Napster’s own non-fungibles based on its famous cat logo. However, Vlassopulos is keen for “utility” to be prominent in Napster’s 2023 efforts.
“Imagine every profile is now a wallet, and start from there. We want to create a more equitable experience around music, but also around fan and artist connections, virtual merchandise and virtual experiences,” he said. “We think we can play in collectibles, but also actually driving utility in a service. And music is perfect for that.”
There’s a similarity here with what’s being done with another veteran digital music brand, Winamp, whose latest revamp also focuses on artists, fan communities and a dash of NFTs.
Meanwhile another filesharing stalwart, LimeWire, has returned as an NFTs marketplace, complete with investment from Napster’s co-owner Hivemind. All bets that in an ever-crowded web3 music world, familiar brands might be an advantage.
Napster is undeniably a strong brand, but that didn’t make it a serious competitor to the biggest music streaming services. Will tacking towards web3 technologies really change that? Vlassopulos sees potential.
“With respect to the other services, when you’re chasing quarterly earnings, there’s a push to chase profitability and revenue. And as they diverge into being more audio services, when you’re going into audiobooks and podcasts, you’re further away from what we really want to double down on: the community connection between artist and fan,” he said.
“Being an independent with capital, with a brand of relevance, but with the ability to move and tack a little bit faster, we can adapt and move into this new profile. Someone’s got to be a bridge to the next era.”
Vlassopulos added that he sees a chance for Napster to be a trusted partner for the labels, management companies, live music firms and artists who want to explore what web3 can offer, and is already having positive discussions with many of them about what might be possible.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the big guys who can turn on a dime, and while there’s been a lot of great experimentation [from smaller startups] it needs someone with… a bit more oomph! We’re not the biggest service in the world, it’s true, but we have several million [users],” he continued.
“We’re the most capitalised web3 music venture, although obviously that’s a relatively low bar! Yes, it’s less than the old guys, the incumbents, but we still see an opportunity.”
“There’s a feeling that music can be the success story of web3, perhaps even more so than DeFi [decentralised finance] or games. Everyone’s looking for a success story,” he continued. “I’m not saying it’s ours for the taking, but we’re throwing our name in the hat.”
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