The Beatdown

After a six-year run, MP3.com is now eMPty3.com.

Gas, grass or ass -- nobody rides for free.

Ever wake up one morning to find your vehicle gone? Straight-up jacked while you weren't looking? Last week, thousands upon thousands of struggling minstrels around the world did. On Tuesday, December 2, the hospitality shuttle they'd been cruising in -- otherwise known as MP3.com -- was repo'd, leaving not so much as an oil slick behind as a reminder. The comprehensive database, six years in the making, had been deleted, leaving scores of wannabe rock stars stranded on the information superhighway.

The site, which had become almost synonymous with independent music, was launched in 1997 by Michael Robertson and soon became embroiled in a slew of copyright-infringement lawsuits that siphoned most of the company's operating capital. Apparently, Robertson had added more than 45,000 titles to his database without obtaining the blessing of the major labels. In 2001, he sold MP3.com to Vivendi Universal (which also owns Universal, MCA, Geffen/DGC, Interscope, Motown and Polygram Records) for a reported $372 million. Last month, CNET Networks, a global media juggernaut that caters to technophiles and owns Download.com and Zdnet, among other brands, acquired the domain from Vivendi's VUNet -- and then shut it down.

Before it went dark, the mammoth portal had hosted 750,000 songs by a menagerie of acts; weekend warriors co-existed with dyed-in-the wool indie artists as well as savvy major-leaguers exploiting yet another guerrilla marketing technique. It was a digital utopia that gave everybody an equal shot, no matter how crappy their music was or whether or not they had a bankroll.

But the exposure didn't necessarily translate into record sales, not even with the site's most popular artists. Fisher, a California-based duo, was one of MP3.com's most downloaded bands in the late '90s -- the band boasted several million listens during the early days of digital music on the Web -- and actually inked a deal with Jimmy and Doug's Farm Club, Interscope's ill-fated venture, as a result of being on the site. According to Fisher's manager, Elliot Cahn (who also managed Green Day and the Offspring), capitalizing on the buzz wasn't as easy or as profitable as everyone had expected. When the group signed with the boutique label of Jimmy Iovine(Interscope) and Doug Morris (Universal), it was assumed that because of its popularity online, there would be an immediate connection with the record-buying public. But Fisher sold only 60,000 units of its major-label debut, True North, and the Internet base was virtually non-existent.

"I think we all learned a lesson," Cahn says. "It's one thing to get people to download the music and another thing entirely to get them to buy it. It was not as easy as we had hoped for."

Although Cahn doesn't think an artist will ever break through on the strength of the Internet alone, he doesn't discount digital music's role in the industry. "My guess is that ten years from now, the CD may become a quaint relic," he says.

And while Fisher's Ron Wasserman says that the MP3.com site was the "best thing that ever happened to us," he remains critical of Universal.

"Again, this is another fine example of a major label, Universal, trying to be 'down with the kids' and destroying a good thing," Wasserman says. "Here is an interesting bit of info: Back in late '99 to early 2000, Universal sued MP3.com for copyright infringement and won $56 million. The money was going to be distributed amongst all the MP3.com artists. Although we had nothingto do with the lawsuit, our 'take' was calculated at about 100K.

"Now, let me be totally clear," he adds. "There was not a single second we ever believed UMG would pay us or any other artist a cent -- and they didn't. Instead, they bought MP3.com and turned it into a commercial for their artists."

Wasserman is spot-on with that assessment. Last week, Blink-182, a Geffen artist, held the top spot for the site's most-streamed song with a cut from its new, self-titled album. By the time the site was shuttered, "Feeling This" had already tracked 435,000 listens.

Closer to home, Sean Mulholland, bassist with Colorado Springs's Accidental Superhero, learned of MP3.com's impending demise in a VUNet e-mail. "It's pretty upsetting," he says. "I took a snapshot of our page before they closed. They sent us an e-mail, as they probably did for many of its members, letting us know about it. It's kind of a sign of the lack of respect for anything that's not signed, like 'Here's a million bands, and most of the music is pretty bad, so let's just shut it down.'"

Mulholland's band was one of the biggest local beneficiaries of exposure on MP3.com. Last year, after Accidental Superhero had gotten nearly half a million downloads, the band's Denver detractors claimed that number was grossly inflated, possibly even fabricated, posting their complaints anonymously on various Web boards.

"The MP3.com stats are legit, and we did garner a lot of label interest," Mulholland responded via e-mail when I asked about those charges earlier this year. "We spent a lot of money and energy promoting on MP3.com, and I worked my butt off producing that album."

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