April 15, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Napster’s Underappreciated Hot List Invented ‘Social Music’

napster hotlist

We like 8Tracks (web, iOS, Android) for mixtape sharing, because it makes it easy, and pretty. You simply upload songs from your computer (or choose them from SoundCloud or Free Music Archive), then share them anywhere, even on a webpage:

The original idea for 8Tracks, according to founder and CEO David Porter, was to build something like the most second-most-powerful feature in the original Napster (after the ability to search for and download music, of course): Hot List.

“For me, the most compelling feature of Napster 1.0 was the ‘hotlist’ button,” writes Porter in a blog post he emailed our way. “After downloading something interesting or a bit obscure, I could click on the ‘hotlist’ button next to the uploader’s name to reveal the other music on his hard drive. It was, for me, the first example of *social* music discovery on the web. Admittedly, since the files weren’t sorted in any meaningful way, it was quite unorganized. But I knew there was something big there.”

Porter’s assertion resonates. I felt precisely the same way, covering (and using quite a bit of) Napster for CNET. Hot List was the feature that most entranced me about Napster, after I got over the ridiculousness of being able to download just about any song for free.

One way Napster’s Hot List feature worked was this: You could search Napster for the same bands, over and over again. They weren’t what you were looking for; the real quarry was people, the ones who had those bands in their collections. I was looking for what else those people were sharing, as was Porter, and, I suspect, countless others.

This was a crude method of social music discovery, but it worked. If you had Mogwai (one of my favorite new bands, at the time), I wanted to know what else you had. If you passed my Mogwai litmus test, I’d probably be into your other music — oh, and look, there it was.

People remember Napster for the free music, the lawsuits, and its release coinciding with 12 straight years of decline for the record industry. However, the HotList feature was more interesting than that simple idea of “Oh no way I can get all this stuff for free aaaaah,” which hogged for obvious reasons.

Even now, Spotify, Rdio, and other social music services that encourage users to follow each other are struggling to figure out how to introduce people with similar taste to each other in a way that sticks. Funnily enough, one answer has been there since the dawn of the file-sharing revolution: the Hot List feature the first version of the now doubly -defunct Napster.

To be fair, Hot List is still alive in various incarnations, though it lacks the ubiquity it had during those heady days of Napster 1.0, when everybody seemed to be using the same thing for music. For example, you can try searching 8Tracks for any band, then checking what else is in that playlist, as well as the other playlists that user has made. It’s not Hot List, but it’s something. A search for Mogwai brings up 3,605 playlists, and nearly as many people.

Screenshot courtesy of Flickr/Krazy Kory