By Paul Serilla
Today, the world gets its first look at a product that some people who probably know little about “business” or “music” are calling, ahem, the “SAVIOR OF THE MUSIC BUSINESS” (dun-dun-du-dah!).
But in case you haven’t heard, we’ll fill you in: MySpace, partnering with Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group, is launching MySpace Music: an iTunes-esque music service that will offer DRM-free downloads, ringtones, concert tickets, t-shirts and other merchandise for us all to lap up with saliva-dripping tongues. And yes, that MySpace — the Fox/News Corp.-owned social networking phenom that is ironically part of the same Interweb that was, until recently, seen as only stabbing the music industry repeatedly in the face.
What MySpace is purporting to offer may sound familiar to users who frequent similarly minded services like Pandora, Last.FM, and subscription services like Rhapsody, but it also could end up being a fair step beyond those services in the evolution of music supported by advertising.
MySpace is, of course, already a big deal in popular music. To date, they have something in the neighborhood of 600,000 artists signed up, giving the tens-of-millions of MySpace users access to at least some of their music, and for better or worse, it has changed the way musicians think about promoting and the way fans think about interacting with artists and discovering new music. This new service is distinguished in several ways from the familiar MySpace music offerings.
First, it’s based around a new music player that will allow users to play “pre-existing” play lists or create their own from the music offered on MySpace — which on its own isn’t a big deal, particularly if you currently use MySpace to “shop” for the music you want (i.e., permanently borrow from other places on the Internets). Second, MySpace has agreements with the aforementioned largest record companies in the game. Though, the details of these agreements are far from clear, we can presume that the music the majors control — including their substantial back catalogs — will be offered up on MySpace for a share of the advertising revenue. The majors, in turn, would, again presumably, give some of that money to the artists — at least if they are contractually obligated to do so.
It is also unclear how much “new content” — both in terms of newly released albums and back catalogs — will be added to MySpace Music . But certainly the parties involved are looking to premier albums on the service. Shit, we wouldn’t be surprised to see full albums being “pre-released” via MySpace with an associated corporate promotion — think “McDonalds Presents: Free Downloads With That Shake! (we’re making this up) where, say, we get to grab the new Fall Out Boy record for the first week of it’s release. Or, perhaps, they’ll give us a coupon for free Starbucks when you pay to download the new Wilco album (Tweedy looks more like Dunkin’ D’s dude, though, doesn’t he?)
How does a band that isn’t on a major or even on any label at all get their cut of the cash? Fuck, it beats us. But we’d suggest any band that gets any significant traffic on their MySpace page read their user agreement and look for any updates to that agreement to find out if you are owed anything, or if you are still just trading your wares for the free hosting and promotional abilities like you were before.
And what about the notion of ad-supported music in general? Before you get your No Logo panties in a bunch, let’s first consider that ad=supported music is nothing new. Bands like Radiohead, R.E.M and Pearl Jam have, to varying degrees, fought association with corporate sponsorship. However, they have gladly accepted money from those same corporations when it was laundered by the ad supported radio and TV stations that pay artists/labels for their performance rights.
But, whatever your opinion of the music business as we now know it is, many capitalists and socialists among us would like to see a world where a person can make a living creating music. Sadly, it isn’t clear what we the consumers of that music are willing to trade to make it happen. With what little we know about the new MySpace Music service, it does appear like it could be a way for musicians to trade their talents and intellectual property for money –- whether the compensation will be fair, however, will likely always be in debate. Ultimately, the long-term success of this or any new distribution service is going to be predicated on how far they are willing to venture beyond the traditional acts pushed by major labels.
If ad supported web-music providers model themselves on traditional radio/TV, where networks are spoon-fed artists and songs by the major labels, they’ll only succeed in prolonging the existing regime a little longer. If instead they take a cue from the broad range of artists whose profiles have grown because of the past decade of illegal file sharing, and are able to proportionately support the next big thing, your cousin’s bar band and inevitable reunion by a mega-band of the past might be in for a new marketplace. One that keeps free music in consumers hands, while sharing the spoils created from the service musicians provide in making that same music in the first place.