MySpace Music: What Went Wrong, and What's Being Done About It
The launch of MySpace Music six months ago was supposed to herald a new era, with the four major labels at long last embracing social media as a disruptive force of good and developing a business model which didn't repulse their customers. It didn't work out that way...
[originally from Wired] Though far from a misbegotten roll-out, the brief history of MySpace Music is a tale of missed opportunities, silo mentalities and unwarranted reluctance to trust the audience.
"It was plumbing and a playlist," says Courtney Holt, who took command of MySpace Music in January, nearly three months after it launched. "But it wasn't overly social, it wasn't deep enough, and we didn't really empower the users to do what they wanted to do."
Starting with ... where is it? MySpace Music — not to be confused with the songs on MySpace artist pages, which are not part of the service — was so hard to find when it launched that most users probably didn't even know it was there.
"They tell me you can stream everything on MySpace," wrote pundit Bob Lefsetz recently, "but I can't find the tracks on MySpace. The company's roots, which are based in raping and pillaging for profit, have hindered the enterprise's development."
If you did stumble across the service, you quickly began to wonder why you had bothered. It wasn't particularly easy to make a playlist, and there was no easy way to share one.
The problem was classic disconnect: a lot of thought had been given to the business model (high-end brands were delighted to be able sponsor on-demand music and playlists) but very little to how people would want to use the service.
Part of the problem: the product development team was scattered, and lacked the sense that someone was in charge. As a result, it worried about rocking the boat.
"You had a giant promotional platform for music, and you wanted to not upset the balance," said Holt. "There was no leadership in the original plan of how to do this, and where it needs to go. There were 35 projects floating in the ether... We've got incredible people that are smart, driven and focused, but sometimes you need someone to say, 'why are we doing that?' or 'let's do it this way.'"
As Steve Jobs knows, democracies don't always produce the best results. MySpace had given the major labels a valuable equity stake in MySpace Music for the right to stream their music on-demand, then completed all of the grueling back-end work to make the music play properly. After all that, the main way to access the resulting service was through other peoples' profile pages.
Making matters worse, MySpace — famous as the go-to place to hear from bands of any stripe — launched the service without any indie music, and that's the kind lots of online music fans appreciate. "Last year... 38.9 percent of digital sales were of independent music," said Rich Bengloff, president of the American Association of Independent Music. "And Pandora plays 55 percent independent music."
After a months-long search, the company hired Holt, a music veteran and early contender for the job with 16 years of industry experience (Universal, Polygram, Warner, MTV Networks) during which he launched several albums through MySpace (Black Eyed Peas, Nine Inch Nails, Weezer).
His first taste of the business involved writing about music in college because he wanted free, unlimited access to review copies and concerts — so he knows a lot about the desire to have someone else support your habit, which aligns him nicely with his customers.
Are things improving? Yes. Here are the main five steps MySpace Music has taken (or is taking) to make it a service worth exploring:
1. Bring back the album
Digital music has been charged with the death of the album, so it's ironic that MySpace, of all things, wants to resuscitate it. The site's upcoming album pages will incorporate more than an old-school album sleeve ever could: videos, alternate versions, crowdsourced fan commentary, quotes from artists who were influenced by the album, and more.
MySpace users clamored for the rest of the improvements on this list, but this is Holt's pet project — a purely top-down initiative.
"I worked a couple U2 records — they would put out the pre-release single, the album, there'd be a special edition album, then there'd be the DVD commemorating the tour, there were MP3s from the tour that got shared, and you sort of say, 'Can I just bring it all together in one place?'"
He hopes to resurrect the album as the locus for musical conversation, in part to teach post-internet music fans about albums, in addition to songs and artists. "Digital is under-serving the long-tail of music, because everything is on equal footing," he explained. "As much as a catalog album is findable... on iTunes or Amazon, I'm concerned how people are going to discover these albums," said Holt. "A lot of people are discovering music through Rock Band and Guitar Hero, but even then, if you play a song 50 times, are you going to buy [the album] and get the story? ... Somebody who loves Lady Ga-Ga, they need to understand that that evolved from Debby Harry."
"I look at this as what an interactive liner note could be," added Holt. " We took art and made it smaller with the CD, and with digital we almost made it disappear. This may not be a tactile experience where I'm holding this in my hand, but I also might be able to expand it back out."
Holt's right about the so-called "disappearing" album cover and liner notes representing a great opportunity for digital music to offer more digitally than was possible in the analog world. "You can virtually do anything but roll a joint on them," said Holt (echoing Shelby Lynne's notorious sentiment).
2. Add indies to the mix
Since its launch, MySpace Music has added music from indie collectives IODA and The Orchard, although the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) and its international equivalent, Merlin, remain holdouts.
A2IM's Bengloff told us that Holt has negotiated with both of those organizations, and that Holt "gets it." This could be a sign that MySpace might succeed in signing those indies as well. That said, MySpace Music's equity structure, as a joint venture between News Corp and the major labels with the labels owning as much as 40 percent, will make it difficult or impossible to place indies on completely equal footing.
3. Make search results playable
Holt says he locked the MySpace Music engineering team in a room for two months to get them to develop a search tool that brings up not only the artist profile, but also the songs the user is probably looking for. Even better, the team made these search results playable directly on the results page, a la SeeqPod, and added a drag-and-drop playlist loader.
"We turned search into a content experience, and a playlist builder," he said. This new horizontal and vertical design, coupled with the album pages, will let MySpace Music run features such as the top 100 albums in a genre, with every album playable, evergreen comment areas, and a drag-and-drop playlist for collecting your favorites. Try that with a music magazine.
4. Make playlists open and social
MySpace freed playlists from profile pages so they can now be played as independent units — somewhat in the style of Muxtape. And users can now make as many playlists as they want, and share them with each other.
In the first two weeks after this change went live on the site (around March 10), MySpace users built more than 105 million public playlists — a promising indication that the team's more open approach is paying off handsomely.
Holt said MySpace Music is considering allowing playlists to be embedded on external sites, as imeem does, but only if there's a business reason to do so.
5. Treat users like an artists
MySpace Music hopes these sharable playlists can make users feel like artists, except they'll be known for their ability to curate, rather than their ability to create. Holt and his team will be actively looking for the best playlist creators, whom they plan to publicize as tastemakers.
To help them gain a following, MySpace Music will add the ability to "follow" playlists and their creators in the way one would a Twitter feed.
MySpace is already the place where much of the world goes to hear any artist's music right away, so huge potential exists for its MySpace Music service to become a key place to collect and discuss music. Still, one can only wonder what may have happened if they'd come out of the gate with the saddle more firmly attached to the horse.