Where MySpace Went Wrong And What It Can Still Do Right

This week MySpace announced it is laying off  half of its workforce. This follows an attempt at rebranding itself as a “social entertainment hub,” a new and widely-ridiculed logo, and a warning from its parent corporation to shape up or get sold.

MySpace grew up around the LA music scene and built itself on music from the beginning. As I’ve been interviewing musicians for the last several months, they’ve told a consistent story about what MySpace offered, what it didn’t, and the extent of its decline. But they’ve also spoken to practical needs that MySpace still meets, and have some words of warning.

In this post, I’ll summarize what emerges from about a dozen of the interviews I’ve done. I identify people with their permission, and don’t identify them at their request.

MySpace reinvented the Musician-Audience Connection

When MySpace started it changed everything for bands, and though some were wary, many leapt in with enthusiasm. It offered fans a direct line to musicians that neither had experienced before. Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai explained that:

when MySpace became popular and people could write straight to a band, I think that was a point I think a lot of people had never considered that you could just email a band. So I think – definitely- when that first started we got a lot a lot of correspondence through MySpace from people I don’t think would maybe have considered sending us an email.

One artist told me that “during a time where I think MySpace was the main mode of communication between fans and musicians I got Myspace things like “oh my god I didn’t know you were a lesbian that’s awesome!” Odd though some of these exchanges may have been, and much as they might have echoed what showed up in fan mail sent through the post, the sheer quantity of people who got in touch was transformative.

MySpace transformed audience measurement

MySpace also upended the structure of the conventional music industry by providing a new kind of metric – the friend count – that has come to carry its own influence that rivals SoundScan, the industry’s flawed yet taken-for-granted standard. “These social networks come along,” described Erin McKeown:

and all of the sudden here’s this new number that can be used. So for a while it was like Myspace views or number of friends on Myspace, and then it turned into Facebook fans and Twitter followers. I have heard in the music industry ‘this is someone good to tour with because they have x number of followers’ or ‘we’re interested in signing you because you’ve got x number of Facebook fans’ and in some ways it’s replaced SoundScan.

For a while that was exciting

As Big Dipper’s Gary Waleik, a social media skeptic, described it, the friend who insisted he joined

likened it to crack, you know? He says “Watch out with this Myspace thing.” You know? “It’s like smoking crack.” Not that I would know and not that he would know probably, but you know he was talking about the addictiveness of it.

“When MySpace came along,” said Steve Lawson:

I did the same thing everyone else did when MySpace came along and searched for artists that I liked and spammed everyone that also liked them with friend requests.  And for a while it generated an enormous amount of play– of listenership.  I was getting thousands of listens a day on MySpace.”

Greta Salpeter, of The Hush Sound and Gold Motel, came up just as MySpace did:

When the Hush Sound was signed, MySpace was huge. We went from having like 5,000 fans to having 30,000 fans overnight when we got signed just because that was the social media outlet of the time, and when we got signed it was like 2005, 2006.”

But That Was Then

Musicians do still use and appreciate MySpace, for reasons I’ll cover below, but as an interactive medium to which they pay attention, they’re done with it. One tells me she prefers Twitter, and so just ports that into Facebook and MySpace:

I read everything that ends up on my Facebook and my Twitter, and I used to read all my MySpace. Now I don’t even check it. But I used to.

Another, whose band has not recorded in several years, says:

We still have a page but I think no one uses it.  We don’t get many requests for friends anymore. … The thing about the MySpace page is I put it up there and hardly ever touch it, hardly ever deal with it.  But hardly anyone looks at it.

“I got over that hype pretty quickly,” Waleik told me, “and I after that I didn’t have much of a need to be on there. I hardly ever go on there anymore.” “I think now MySpace is much less important,” said Salpeter.

What’s Killing MySpace?

The obvious answer may be “Facebook,” but that doesn’t really tell us that much. Musicians point to a variety of problems with MySpace, problems that its competitors have either solved or should be solving if hoping to stave off MySpace’s fate.

The interface: Cellist Zoë Keating, who has a past in information technology, told me:

I remember the end of 2004 I signed up for MySpace and I couldn’t quite figure out whether it was cheesy or not but I signed up. And I found– as a former kind of information architect I found the interface of MySpace really annoying from the beginning.

“MySpace is hard to use,” said Salpeiter, “it’s kind of annoying, whereas like Facebook, you know, it’s so easy for us to create invites.” Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division echoed their sentiment:

MySpace is annoying in so many ways.  One is you cannot send a group email out to very many people and if you have 5,000 fans, which we did at one point, you cannot search them.  Once you hit 5,000 it’s not searchable anymore which is so counterintuitive and so stupid.  And you also cannot group MySpace people by area.  Because I was trying to go onto MySpace and find all the people who lived in Colorado or Texas and you can’t do that.  MySpace has sown their own seeds of destruction by being so user unfriendly even though it was a good idea, it’s just rampantly stupid.  I mean it’s unbelievable how hard it is to use once you have more than a handful of friends.

Spam: Like email, MySpace has also been seriously undermined by spam. “MySpace has been spammed,” said Salpeter, “you see all these crazy advertisements all the time.” Said Braithwaite, “19 out of 20 comments are ads or people trying to promote their band. It’s too easy to exploit.” As he suggests, musicians themselves are often the spammers. Steve Lawson described:

I had over 10,000 MySpace friends and deleted 8.5 thousand of them, because it was such a mess, I had no idea who was interested in what I was doing and who wasn’t, I couldn’t work out who had spammed me, who I’d spammed.

Disconnection: Despite its use as a metric, musicians describe MySpace as disconnected from what happens outside its own social world. “We use MySpace,” Braithwaite told me, “we get thousands of plays a day but there’s no interaction.” Lawson found that his thousands of plays wasn’t “turning into anything of any value”:

MySpace had its own internal currency which was friending, but no one would sit in front of their computer on MySpace with a credit card in hand.  And there didn’t seem to be mechanisms for turning that into anything meaningful.

MySpace friends may not spend when they’re out either. Gary Waleik told me about a friend of his who had a new CD:

They had this huge following on Myspace. I mean it was ridiculous. I think it was something like maybe this wasn’t so huge but I think it was like 10,000 people or something like that and it would drive them crazy because they did one CD together. And they had a record release party and people came out and they had CDs and they couldn’t give away the CDs. They thought they could sell some at the show. They didn’t sell a single one.

Stigma: Finally, as danah boyd has found in her ethnographic interviews with American teenagers, MySpace came to carry a class, race, and region based stigma as the seemingly “classier” and “more sophisticated” Facebook has gained audience. One musician requesting anonymity described it like this:

MySpace has a bad social connotation. I know like tons and tons of people still use it. I think mostly like in the Bible Belt and the South area, that kind of thing is where it’s still really, really popular. But it almost has this connotation of classless people. You know, there are always these jokes about the slutty girls on MySpace taking pictures of themselves and the kind of asshole-looking guys flirting with the girls and, you know, that it’s just a way to kind of like find sex and fuel vanity and that kind of thing.

MySpace Still Has A Niche

All this said, for those I’ve spoken with, MySpace is not dead. It’s still a fairly easy one-stop-spot to put your materials and have them be heard, a niche that no other site has been able to supplant. ”MySpace really seems to have just moved specifically into launching bands,” said Stephen Mason from Jars of Clay, “that seems to be where I see most of its use.” Another said he thinks MySpace “still is a big deal if you’re a band, that’s about all it’s good for these days is to find bands’ pages and hear their tracks.”

Salpeter’s perspective echoes theirs:

Mostly MySpace is used for people to hear our music, to see the photographs. You know, it’s like a basic template where the audience knows where to find everything, the photos, the music, the blogs, the whatever. So MySpace is a huge one for people to discover bands. MySpace is really just like the one-stop shop where anyone in the press, any potential listeners, any other bands to just be able to get one quick picture of the band, hear one song or 10 songs if they want, look at the photos, read the bio and look at the tour dates. It’s like everything in one place.

MySpace also offers bands the chance some find problematic in other platforms to just be musicians. Said Jonathan Segel of Camper Van Beethoven and solo work:

The whole effort is just to try to speak from that platform about music, but that’s difficult to maintain.  Or speak from that platform about shows or CDs or something like that.  That was easier when people were using MySpace I am really only the musician from my page on MySpace, I’m not like a personal human being.

Said McKeown, somewhat ruefully, “MySpace was less about status updates and more about just making music available in your player and collecting friends. But then Twitter and Facebook’s microblogging aspect kind of demanded fresh personal content.”

Be Warned

Just three years ago it was almost impossible to imagine Facebook as a more important site for music than MySpace, and it still has a long way to go if it is going to fill that space (as do Spotify and other possible contenders). But today’s top sites are just as likely to fade just as precipitously in years to come. As Waleik put it:

One of my misgivings about this whole thing, this whole phenomenon is that people go gaga over one medium and they say “Okay, this is how you do it.” And people try it for a very short period of time and the new better medium comes along and everyone just goes wholeheartedly into that, and then you know, you could see the progress from Myspace to Facebook to Twitter, everyone just loses their minds at the latest thing, and says “No, this is how you do it.”

What does this mean for musicians and others who rely on social media sites?  Perhaps more than anything, it reiterates the importance of keeping control. It’s essential to maintain a presence in some social media, but you also need to have your own mailing list, your own website, your own URL. Support what fans do elsewhere, and meet them where they are but remember to build an online identity and relationships on your own grounds as well. Zoë Keating has fooled around with Google Analytics, and is fairly certain that the people she reaches through MySpace are different from those she reaches through other sites. She warns:

everybody’s been complaining about how awful MySpace is and we’ve been waiting for it to die.  But meanwhile you better try to get people off of that — if they actually exist — to your mailing list because when it goes away you have no way to reach them.

Popular Music Fandom: A One Day Symposium

This looks fun, sorry I won’t be there, but maybe you can be there:

Call For Papers:

Popular Music Fandom: A One Day Symposium

Binks Building, University of Chester
Northwest Popular Music Studies Network

Friday 25th June 2010

Keynote speaker: Matt Hills (author of ‘Fan Cultures’)

While a range of researchers in cultural studies – notably Henry
Jenkins, Matt Hills and Cornell Sandvoss – have moved the discussion
about media fandom forward, much less work has been done specifically on
popular music fandom. We invite contributors from a wide range of
disciplines to discuss topics associated with popular music fan culture
at this free one-day study event in Chester. Themes for papers may
include (but are not limited to):

•    Defining fandom
•    Stardom and celebrity, reading and textuality
•    Fandom and the consumer marketplace
•    Fans as musicians / musicians as fans
•    Perceptions of the music industry
•    Collecting and other fan practices
•    Live music, local scenes and fandom
•    Stereotyping, self-awareness and media representation
•    Gender, age and disability
•    Methodology and research practice
•    Theorizing fandom: processes, practices, identities
•    Issues of taste, social mobility and class
•    Personal narratives and investments
•    Case studies, ethnographies and histories
•    Fandom, heritage and tourism
•    Specific music genres: jazz fandom, metal, northern soul,
electronic music
•    Religion, modernity and the ‘cult’ analogy
•    The fan community: insiders, outsiders and the ‘ordinary’
•    Fan culture and the paradigm of performance
•    The ‘pathological’ tradition: questions of typicality and
•    Issues of race and nationality
•    Power, psychology and symbolic economy
•    Online participatory cultures

Papers will be twenty minutes in length. Please send an abstract of up
to 200 words along with your name, affiliation, paper title, postal and
email address to: Dr Mark Duffett, m.duffett@chester.ac.uk (marking your
email title ‘fan symposium’).

The deadline for abstracts is Monday May 10th 2010.

How to interview and SXSWi highlights

Back from my first SXSWi. General impression: A lot of wonderful people there, but way too many people. It was hard to find even the people I already knew, let alone meet new ones, though I did manage both.

I led a core conversation about interviewing, meant to pool our collective wisdom about how to be a good interviewer. It got nice write ups here and here.

I made up an interviewing cheat sheet, which you are welcome to use, reuse, recirculate or ignore as you see fit. Download it as a PDF.

My two favorite panels were Ze Frank’s and Devo’s. I have long admired Ze Frank’s amazing experiments in audience participation, including When Office Supplies Attack and Angrigami, and I expected him to be hilarious, which he was. I was not expecting him to be so insightful and moving. He spoke about how much emotion is out there on the internet, and how much it blows him away when he sees how people take the fun little tools he’s created at his site, like this flower maker, and use them to display and share profound feelings with one another. He also talked about making The Show as an experiment in living at the edge of continuous anxiety about not having anything to present and the ongoing process of learning to have faith and patience in his own creativity.

Devo presented a panel called “Devo, The Internet, and You” which was simultaneously a discussion of how they are seeking audience participation in their next album and a wicked wicked send up of corporate speak approaches to treating online audiences as marketing data.

Here is a link to their (unembeddable?) powerpoint which is more than worth the 1:43 it takes to watch it. Judging from the comments on the YouTube site, its status as parody wasn’t apparent to all, but it was crystal clear if you were there.  The highlight might have been the questions, when the audience slipped right into the same mode and asked lingo-laden queries that were as funny as the presentation (“I am really impressed at how you’ve managed to leverage synergies and I’m just wondering if there are any synergies you haven’t been able to leverage?” “Location seems to be increasingly important in this new millennium and I’m wondering if you are planning to offer location based services”). Mike Monello, of Campfire NYC, who’s a leader in transmedia storytelling (in addition to having been a maker of Blair Witch Project, he also does the transmedia for True Blood among other cutting edge projects) declared the panel “the definition of transmedia storytelling.” It was perfect.

I also enjoyed seeing Peter Sunde from Pirate Bay (and Flattr) skyped in from Sweden (“If I set foot in the United States I’d get sued so hard I’d never be able to leave”) who didn’t really say anything but was exceedingly funny and charming at it.

My biggest disappointments? Daniel Ek of Spotify offered no hope of a US launch anytime soon, and, yeah, that Twitter CEO keynote interview. Suffice to say the interviewer should have been at my session.

My biggest frustration? The panel on music curation. Anya Grundmann who’s in charge of NPRMusic.org was wonderful, but I was ultimately infuriated by music writer Chris Weingarten who at one point had the insight to say that “it’s not about finding a music blogger who has taste like you, it’s about finding a group of people who have similar taste” but ended up just whining that only the real (i.e. published in Rolling Stone like he is) music critics were capable of real critique and the rest were just wannabe fanboys driving the experts out of business. No sympathy here. And a total misunderstanding of the levels of in-depth critique fans practice every day.

p.s. best perks? Macallan’s ongoing free tastings of their 12 and 15 year scotches and free chair massage. I want that at all events I attend.

The 6 Types of Last.fm Friends

I’ve been continuing to analyze the data I collected about friendships on Last.fm. Last week I presented a paper at Internet Research 10.0 in Milwaukee co-authored with Kiley Larson, Andrew Ledbetter, Michelle McCudden and Ryan Milner in which we combined quantitative analysis of motivations people had for friending with qualitative answers to questions about what they get out of friending. We then did a cluster analysis which led us to identify 6 types of friendships on the site. Axel Bruns did a wonderful job of live blogging the presentation and I hope he won’t mind my just quoting from his summary:

Nancy suggests that there are six types of friends: people who met on last.fm, divided into linkers, music explorers, and last.fm socialisers; people who met online, but not on last.fm (online socialisers); and local socialisers and local music socialisers.

Linkers have a static connection, very little communication, feel that it would have been rude not to friend, have the most recent friendships, and a low relational development; music explorers connect only because of the music, and have moderate last.fm and little off-site communication, they share musical tastes and histories, as well as other similarities, have the oldest friendship partners and low relational development; last.fm socialisers enjoy the site as a social space, do the most communication through it, met somewhere on the site, are interested but may not share one another’s musical taste, talk about music as well as other things, appreciate their differences, tend to be international and same-sex; online socialisers already knew one another from somewhere else online, and may also have met face-to-face, communicate a lot online but not through the site; local socialisers with high levels of face-to-face, phone, and online communication, but not through the site, observing one another’s listening and appreciate the sense of connection but don’t talk much about music, they have a moderately high relational development; and local music socialisers, who have the highest relational development, with high communication through all media,even moderately through the site, with music as a motivation for friending and an observation of each other’s listening patterns.

You can download my PowerPoints from the talk here.

I’ll also add that Axel blogged many other talks given at the conference, and point you to his complete event liveblog.

On the Pirate Bay Verdict

I never really paid a whole lot of attention to Pirate Bay. I have a torrenting application, but have only ever used it to download one band’s concerts from their fan board (where they are posted with the band’s tacit consent). But I was totally taken in during the trial, particularly with the Twitter spectacle of it all– both the posts of defendent @brokep with his mastery of twitterspeak and with the #spectrial tagging that included real time moment-by-moment translation of the trial and ongoing commentary. If you were following me during that time you might have noticed I was bordering on obsessed.

So now the verdict is in, at least in phase one, and they’ve been found guilty with jail time and massive fines to pay if the verdict is upheld.

As someone who’s spent much of the last few years paying way too much attention to the independent music scene in Sweden, and who chanced to meet @brokep when I was going to meet some independent label guys for lunch in Malmö last fall, my feelings are very mixed. He had a sweet smile and was instantly likable. More importantly though, he was hanging out in an office with people running two of my favorite Swedish music labels: Songs I Wish I Had Written and Hybris. Both labels are associated with The Swedish Model, a collective seeking to foster a new future-oriented dialogue about the music industry.

When I interviewed independent Swedish label heads and musicians, every single one of them spoke of downloading as a good thing. They viewed it as an opportunity to reach broader and more international audiences, to increase the number of people into their kind of music, as a chance to build a whole new culture around music. Martin Thörnkvist, head of Songs I Wish, most vocal spokesperson for The Swedish Model (and guy who introduced me to Peter from Pirate Bay), told me he uploads their whole catalogue to Pirate Bay so he can have control over the quality of the recordings people download of their songs. Each spring Labrador Records uploads a sampler full of their singles to Pirate Bay.

It isn’t that these people don’t want to make any money from the music, it’s that they recognize that file sharing is not a choice, but a given. The question is how to use it, not how to stop it.

On the Digital Renaissance blog, Thörnkvist wrote:

Today’s ruling has only one positive aspect. I look forward to the music business investment in new services that were promised when the “copyright issue” is resolved. Up to evidence, out with you on the dance floor and show what you can do. Release control of your catalouges and let the service developers that are the best test their wings, instead of the one that currently can give you the biggest advance.

Of course this is not the end of the juridical process. The appeal will come as fast as it takes to download a torrent. But in my dream world the record, film and computer games companies withdrew their claims and instead spend all their money and creative energy to develop what they are actually best in the world at. Until then, Peter, Fredrik and Gottfrid have my full support in their dreams of a free internet.

Thank you, The Pirate Bay for putting a blowtorch in the ass of those who own 80% of all music ever released. Your work will ultimately lead to the re-recognize value of its core business and the will to sanction better services to restore music as the best provider of emotions.

It hurts when old business models to burst, but in this case the grass is really greener on the other side – not least for musicians and music lovers.

Or as Mike Masnick put it:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t think that most file sharing is legal or right (and I don’t participate in any of it). But, millions of people who know that it’s illegal have absolutely no problem taking part in it, and no “education” campaign or shutting down of a particular site or service is going to stop that. Continuing to pretend it will doesn’t help the industry at all. What helps the industry is to stop denying that this is something that can be stopped legally, and finally moving on to experimenting with business models that work

I don’t think all music should be uploaded and downloaded freely. I am all for investment in music and return on investment in music, and I realize that money is inevitably part of that equation. I also think, though, that the pursuit of money, and sometimes very large amounts of it, has colored the music business in some weird ways so that money is too often taken to be the only kind of investment or reward that can motivate good music. Ultimately, I want the music business to survive, but, like Martin, Mike, and the people I’ve interviewed, that’s only going to happen when everyone accepts that whether they like it or not, whether it’s morally and legally right or not, file sharing is not going to stop.

I love the idea of embracing it. Of seeding the music yourself. I have heard the arguments, but I am not at all convinced that in the end it means fewer copies will sell.

I want more ways for us to pay artists in addition to buying the CD or the downloads. I want scarce goods like fabulous packaging and great bags, shirts, posters, and so on. I want a way to pay every artist what we think their music is worth directly (let them work out the payback for songwriters, producers, financers and other behind-the-scenes people).

Some past posts about Swedish labels and file sharing:

Indie Labels on Sharing, Streaming, and Giving It Away

The Trap of the File Sharing Debate

Music Is All About Money