Head shot of Napster CEO Jon Vlassopulos
Photo: Napster

Napster CEO Jon Vlassopulos: ‘It’s fun to be a rebel again’

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Tuesday, we’re talking to Roblox’s former head of music about his new gig as Napster’s CEO. Also: Nreal is launching its latest AR glasses in the U.S., and YouTube commenters commemorate Pharoah Sanders.

Napster’s new CEO has a history with Napster

It’s not uncommon for CEOs to wear company swag. But when I interviewed former Roblox head of music and incoming Napster CEO Jon Vlassopulos over Zoom last week, I wasn’t expecting him to don a shirt with the Napster logo. That’s because Vlassopuloss hadn’t actually started at the company yet — and Napster hasn’t sold any shirts featuring the famous cat with headphones in years.

Vlassopulos’ Napster shirt is more than 20 years old, it turns out, and stems from a time when the company was still running its file-sharing network, drawing the ire of the global music industry. His wife had wanted to throw the shirt out many times over the years, he told me. Vlassopulos held onto it and has been wearing it more often as he prepares for his new role.

  • Vlassopulos’ history with Napster goes beyond the classic T-shirt: While working for German media giant Bertelsmann in 1999, he was part of the team that invested in the file-sharing network, with the goal of striking a peace deal with the record labels.
  • “We offered a billion dollars to the industry for legitimizing Napster,” Vlassopulos said. The deal didn’t happen, and Napster was forced to shut down.
  • “We never showed the world what we were planning for Napster 2.0, the legitimate version, but it was still, in my opinion, better than anything that's come since,” he said.
  • Back then, Napster had 100 million users who were using the company’s software to trade MP3s with each other.
  • Free music was obviously Napster’s biggest draw, but the file-sharing network also gave people access to obscure bootleg recordings, mash-ups, and a vibrant community of music lovers.
  • “It felt a little naughty at the time, but it stood for something,” Vlassopulos said.

If Napster’s past was MP3s, its future is Web3, Vlassopulos believes. The company has been operating as a legitimate streaming service similar to Spotify and Apple Music since 2003.

  • During that time, it has undergone multiple ownership changes, including an acquisition earlier this year by crypto investment company Hivemind and Web3 tech startup Algorand.
  • The two companies and a number of new investors now want to turn Napster into a Web3-focused music company; Vlassopulos projects that Web3 could eventually generate “billions and billions of dollars” for the music industry.
  • At the same time, Napster wants to keep operating its existing streaming service. One reason for that are the existing relationships with record labels and other music rights holders. “That moat is very hard to replicate,” Vlassopulos said.
  • Napster also wants to use the existing service to introduce Web3 features to new audiences. Over time, this could include turning the profiles of Napster subscribers into Web3 wallets and offering unique live music experiences.

The labels are actually on board this time around. Vlassopulos told me that there’s a lot of interest in Web3 among music executives. The problem is that most startups in the space are simply too small, or they just don’t have the rights in place to truly innovate.

  • Many Web3 endeavors are “projects, not companies,” Vlassopulos said.
  • Napster is now looking to invest in Web3 music startups with a new venture fund and perhaps acquire some of them over time.
  • Vlassopulos said that he also wants to create moments that can demonstrate the utility of Web3 to the industry, much in the same way he was able to get labels to talk about the metaverse after Lil Nas X performed in Roblox.

But how much brand equity does Napster still have? Vlassopulos told me that there’s a retro factor for younger music fans who are rediscovering the ’80s and ’90s, thanks to “Stranger Things” and “Cobra Kai.” And he still gets New York cab drivers to talk about downloading MP3s back in the days whenever he is wearing his Napster shirt.

“We want to have that spirit back,” he said. “It’s fun to be a rebel again.”

— Janko Roettgers

A MESSAGE FROM QUALCOMM

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

Learn more

Nreal is launching iPhone AR glasses before Apple does

Chinese AR devices maker Nreal is bringing its Nreal Air glasses to the U.S.: The company today started selling the device for $379 on Amazon, where consumers will also be able to buy an adapter to connect Nreal Air to an iPhone.

  • Nreal Air needs to be plugged into a phone or another external device to run AR experiences; the glasses themselves are basically just viewers without any onboard compute.
  • For Android devices, Nreal has built its own smartphone-based AR operating system called Nebula. That’s not available for iOS yet, but Nreal announced today that it is bringing Nebula to Mac OS.
  • Nreal’s Air glasses don’t have any cameras for positional or hand tracking, which means that they won’t be able to run any advanced AR experiences.
  • Nreal positions them as a monitor replacement of sorts, with a press release stating the device was “designed for entertainment consumption like video viewing and mobile gaming.”
  • It’s admittedly a very different approach than Apple is taking for its upcoming headset, but it allowed Nreal to build a device that weighs just 79 grams.
  • Instead of building the most feature-rich AR headset, the company was looking to build a pair of light and comfortable glasses that can be worn every day, Nreal CEO Chi Xu told me when the company first introduced Nreal Air in Asia last year.

Nreal may have a very different approach toward AR than Apple does, but the startup does share Apple’s outlook on the medium: “By the year 2030, we will have a billion people wearing [AR] glasses on a daily basis,” Xu said last year.

— Janko Roettgers

In other news

Netflix is launching a new games studio in Helsinki. The internal studio will be led by former Zynga and Electronic Arts exec Marko Lastikka.

Why Hollywood is going bananas for the Minions. “Despicable Me’s” sidekicks have become one of Hollywood’s most unexpected franchises, with consumers spending over $6 billion on Minions merch alone.

E3 will make a return in 2023. The gaming trade show is coming back to Los Angeles next June.

Audacity relaunches with new audio-sharing site. The open-source audio editor just received a major update, which includes a new web community.

Oxenfree 2 is delayed until 2023. Night School Studio, which was acquired by Netflix in 2021, announced this past weekend that it will take some extra time to localize the game into additional languages.

Does Netflix have a content problem or a monetization problem? Smart observations from Lightshed analysts, who point out that Netflix subscribers are actually watching more Netflix content than ever.

Apple Music is sponsoring the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Apple’s music service is replacing longtime sponsor Pepsi.

Twitch’s creator SVP is leaving. The departure of Constance Knight happens to coincide with controversial changes to the way Twitch is paying creators.

RIP Pharoah Sanders

There are music services, and there’s YouTube. If you needed any more proof that Google’s video service is operating in a league of its own, consider this: Ever since news broke over the weekend that jazz legend Pharoah Sanders died, YouTube commenters have turned his videos into impromptu memorials of sorts. One example is the comment section of “Kazuko,” a song Sanders recorded live in an abandoned tunnel in the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco. In addition to recent commenters paying tributes to Sanders, the video also features comments from Mark Allen, who produced the original video for a TV documentary. After rediscovering it by chance on YouTube, Allen wrote, “Ever since I first heard Pharoah’s music, I envisioned something like this performance.”

— Janko Roettgers

A MESSAGE FROM QUALCOMM

If we want our nation’s rich history of innovation to continue, experts say, we must create an IP protection ecosystem that helps ensure that tech innovation will thrive.

Learn more

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to entertainment@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you Thursday.

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