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Your buddy pops an unknown cassette into your car's tape deck. Your latest crush burns you a mix CD. One of your co-workers e-mails you some MP3s. Your cool older brother hips you to his vinyl collection. Shootin' the shit in the mall, the quad, the break room: That's how we discover new sounds and new obsessions -- through interaction with friends and family, not through crass, impersonal marketing campaigns. And once a group has us hooked, we join fan clubs. As kids, we write letters to our favorite bands, rushing home every day hoping for a response. As adults, we approach musicians at the bar or at the merch table after a show, eager for conversation.
Those experiences drive MySpace Music (Music.MySpace.com), the hottest component of the insanely popular social networking Web site MySpace. Conceived and launched last year by Tom Anderson and Chris De Wolfe as a less elitist version of Friendster.com -- create a personal profile, browse other profiles, build a virtual community of friends, swap messages, comments and/or testimonials -- MySpace has evolved into a Web phenomenon by continually adopting and adapting the best ideas from other successful sites. That includes blogging, photo sharing, special-interest groups, instant messaging, and gaming, all housed in a welcoming, user-friendly, addictive, and completely free environment. Thus, its astounding success: MySpace boasts nearly five million registered profiles, and adds around 25,000 new users daily.
Unveiled in June, MySpace Music allows artists to create personal profiles and offer free downloads, streaming videos, banner ads, biographical material, upcoming show info, and anything else they can dream up. MySpace also provides a searchable directory, along with interviews, message boards, classifieds and other features. Users can hunt down specific artists or browse their friends' profiles and interests the same way you'd peruse a CD collection.
Meanwhile, bands can generate buzz and reel in new fans, or link up with promoters, venues and other bands to schedule shows and tours. Already, more than 60,000 artists -- from major-label behemoths to unsigned bedroom four-trackers -- have signed up. It's a unique, win-win model for both fans and bands, and it's working: The tremendous traffic and positive attention MySpace Music has received is speedily rendering other Internet music sites woefully inadequate and obsolete.
"I think it's succeeding because it's not strictly a music site," says the 29-year-old Anderson, a 1996 University of California-Berkeley graduate who helps run MySpace out of its Los Angeles headquarters. "I'm a musician, and I'm into local bands, but you'd never in a million years find me on Download.com searching for music. I just don't do that sort of thing. But I use MySpace, and in the process, I find new bands all the time."
After all, "A band's personal Web site is unlikely to get any traffic except from diehard fans," he continues. "MySpace lets bands participate in a community of people who are potential fans. The hard-core music fans are there, but bands can find people that may have never bought an indie record or gone to a live show. It's a whole new market."
The big bands are definitely taking notice of this new market. In September, R.E.M. partnered with MySpace to offer a two-week free preview of its latest album, Around the Sun, before it hit stores, the first major exclusive offered by a social networking Web site. Longtime R.E.M. manager and attorney Bertis Downs says that he and the band were initially skeptical, but changed their tune after the album individually streamed more than a million times in the experiment's first week, far surpassing promotions the band had done previously with AOL and Yahoo!.
"It's sort of a cyber version of the way R.E.M. started out," Downs explains. "They'd play tiny little dives, and people would tell other people about the show, and six months later they'd play places a little bigger, and their popularity kept growing through that word of mouth between friends, and that's the best recommendation you can have. The first week the album was up on MySpace, we were in Philadelphia rehearsing for the Vote for Change tour, and kids were coming up to us on the street saying, 'Hey, I saw your thing on MySpace, that's really cool, man.' And that made the band realize that this is real, that there's something to it. It's that whole viral thing, and it works."
Still, Downs admits the band isn't really participating in the other crucial element of MySpace -- the direct contact with fans. "We streamed the album and then we were asked, 'Hey, why don't you put a message up?' and so Michael [Stipe] put a few sentences on the profile. But they've pretty much decided not to become pen pals at this point. They're just too busy playing shows."
A reasonable excuse, perhaps. But as you can probably guess, most big-shot artists with a MySpace presence completely ignore that "pen pal" function -- either they don't have time, they don't get it, or they don't care. There are exceptions: the Black Eyed Peas, the Deftones, and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer have all taken a hands-on approach with their profiles, and if you send them a message, there's a good chance you'll hear back. But go to many major-label artist pages and you'll find nary a personal touch -- just a song or two, a record company bio posted in the blog section, and a link to the "official" Web site, all suggesting an unpaid intern operating behind the scenes.
But if Michael Stipe isn't using MySpace Music to its full potential, many unsigned acts and smaller-label artists certainly are. Mike Peaslee, singer for Oakland, California, indie rockers Stalking Tom, says that in the five months since his band signed up, he makes updating its profile and responding to messages a high priority, and subsequently has earned a ton of new fans who've bought ST's self-produced CD and, more important, shown up at concerts.
"People don't go out as much anymore, and when they do, they're going to have a clear destination," he says. "Some stranger shoving a piece of paper in their face isn't going to change those plans. Even if you're not just being the typical flier zombie -- blankly passing out stubs of paper to anybody who will make eye contact -- you're not going to effectively bring people to shows. If they can see you, hear you, and interact with you on their terms first, they're more likely going to take the chance and come to your next show. It's that personal and casual appeal that makes MySpace far more valuable than any music-centric site."
"If you approach it respectfully, as you would with a community of 'real' people, then it can be a really powerful tool that's also sincere and genuine," says Matt Sherwood, guitarist for melodic hardcore band Strike Anywhere, from Richmond, Virginia. A self-professed "Internet nerd," he created an individual profile when the site was still in its beta testing phase last year, and when MySpace Music officially blossomed, he got his band involved. "At first I sought out people who had us listed in their profile as a band they enjoy, and just wrote to them to thank them for admitting publicly that they like our band. I mean, I'm 32, I play in a band, and I make a thousand bucks a month. So the main thing I get out of doing what I do is personal relationships and meaningful friendships, and I've totally gotten that out of MySpace."
Much of MySpace Music's success can be attributed to the fact that its founders aren't just suits far removed from the day-to-day operations of the site. Anderson isn't just the president: He's also a client.
"I started writing to Butch Walker because a friend on MySpace told me about him," he says. "When Butch came to L.A. for an acoustic show, I went to see him, less because I was dying to hear him and more because we'd e-mailed each other about liking the Paul Stanley solo album. But when I saw and heard him perform, I was blown away. Butch is hands-down the best performer I've ever witnessed. So that's an example where Butch made a friend on MySpace who became a big fan. I think that happens all the time."
Independent record labels are also getting into the act, and many are doing so while following the same ethical guidelines that have long distinguished them from their major-label counterparts. "I can put an exclusive song up there and see how many plays it gets, and what people's direct feedback is," says Jade Tree publicist David Lewis, who uses the label's profile to promote his entire roster, including Strike Anywhere, Pedro the Lion, and These Arms Are Snakes. "As a publicist, I think I know who likes Jade Tree bands, but now I can really see what kind of people are into it. But at the same time, we don't do any unsolicited barrages of messages -- I let people come to us if they want to. That's a definite moral choice that we're making, because we're not comfortable being so invasive. That's what you see a lot of the major labels doing on MySpace, and kids are savvy enough to know when they're being schemed. A lot of people are afraid of MySpace turning into that."
Will mainstream meddling and commercial pressures ultimately doom this phenomenon, like so many other once-trendy sites? MySpace currently generates its revenue from advertising, and while Anderson says that he's thinking about offering premium services in the future, he adamantly stresses that all the existing features will remain absolutely free.
Good. "As long as it's a place where you can discover something new and meaningful, then that will keep it a part of people's everyday life, and it'll probably be around a long time," Sherwood says. "It's an awesome site now, and it's got so much potential, but if it gets bogged down in trying to make a huge profit off people, or if people get assailed with too much advertising and the same old bullshit, they'll leave it behind."