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 nothing to 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."
His efforts were not in vain. As a result of the buzz generated on MP3.com, A&R reps from several major labels, including the former CEO of A&M Records, Al Cafaro, contacted Accidental Superhero. Although no deal ensued, Cafaro offered some sage wisdom about the recording industry that Mulholland took to heart.
"He basically said that if you're marketing yourself to labels, get as much of an advance as you can, because it's quite possible that the A&R person that signs you may be fired at some point," Mulholland says. "Like, 'Nothing is for sure. Don't trust anybody as your best buddy, even if they say they love your music.'"
Fortunately, Accidental Superhero didn't put all of its trust in MP3.com, either. After the band had amassed 200,000 downloads in a time frame of three months in the summer of 2002, its members changed their strategy. While other acts continued to offer their material for free, Mulholland and company made their music work for them, by having their audio available on a streaming-only basis rather than as a free download. Users could still obtain three free digital tracks, but only if they joined Superhero's mailing list. As a result, the band now has the names and addresses of 10,000 people already interested in its music. So even though the band no longer has its MP3.com page, it has an invaluable asset ready for when the time comes to push its next release, slated for sometime next year.
In the meantime, Accidental Superhero has found a new vehicle to move its tunes, one that was somewhat unexpected. Last year, after the group finished third in the Coca-Cola New Music Awards, three of its songs were selected by Microsoft to appear on the just-released Project Gotham Racing 2 for Xbox, alongside those of major artists like American Hi-Fi, Sir Mix-A-Lot and Uncle Kracker. Although Mulholland hesitates to attribute this deal to the band's exposure on MP3.com, it's safe to say that talent alone is rarely enough: Someone has to hear the songs before the doors swing open.
Many more Colorado bands broadened their fan base with MP3.com, although few fared as well as Superhero. Fear Before the March of Flames held the top spot on the Top 200 listens for the Denver area with "The 20th Century Was Entirely Mine," from its debut Odd How People Shake. Before MP3.com was pulled, Fear had logged 91,000 listens, while Drug Under had 31,000. In comparison, more lauded local artists Tinker's Punishment had 15,000; Dead Heaven Cowboys, Yo, Flaco! and Rexway all clocked in at around 6,000 each; Hemi Cuda and ION sat at around 4,000; and Love.45 and Vox-Demona came in at 500. The sleepers of the bunch: newcomer The Late Jack Redell at 14,000 and, shockingly, the long-defunct Angellic Rage at 26,000.
When VUNet announced the imminent end of MP3.com, a multitude of other sites sprang up, hoping to capitalize on the traffic. But local bands might want to wait before they hitch a ride, because a brand-new community is being created. Initially, CNET did not intend to build a replacement site, but now, in response to overwhelming demand from the independent-music community, it promises to unveil a new domain, www.music.download.com, sometime after the first of the year. The site, with a functionality similar to that of the old MP3.com, will most likely be featured on CNET's Download.com (which already gets "tens of millions of unique visitors," according to CNET) and will allow folks to upload and download songs for free.
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CNET also plans to relaunch MP3.com, with a redirected focus as a centralized music-information resource. Maybe now that the music-industry weasels have been removed from the equation, the site might work better for everyone involved.
Gentlemen, start your engines.
Upbeats and beatdowns: Members of DeVotchKa will fondle their instruments at the Ogden Theatre this Friday, December 12, as they provide aural stimulation for a titillating holiday event being billed as Burlesque XXXMas, featuring the, ahem, bodacious ta-talents of Manson's main squeeze, Dita Von Teese, as well as Catherine D'Lish, Kitten on the Keys and the local gals from Burlesque As It Was and Oracle Dance. There's nothing like being stripped of your inhibitions, even if it means being added to the jolly fat man's naughty list -- with three gigantic X's next to your name. Not to be outdone, and also on Friday night, Typecast, Ceverance, Forgotten Price and Assisted Suicide Assembly grind at the Bluebird. On the following night, Saturday, December 13, at Herman's Hideaway, Rhythm Vision swells with the release of its new CD, with Mercury Project and the Fong Jones Band joining in the celebration. Meanwhile, over on Colfax Avenue, Paul Geoffrey Fonfara will uncover his newest unit, Painted Saints, at the Lion's Lair, and Unee Q, Logic and Fresh City will hang a sign warning "Don't Disturb This Groove" on the door of the Bluebird. Then on Sunday, December 14, Caustic Soul, Autumns, Dark Orchid and Erotic will pleasure the masses at the Bluebird for Gestalt Records' one-year anniversary party. Finally, at the Blue Mule on Monday, December 15, the Fighting Cocks, Belfast Carbombs, Weather the Storm and Crimson Haybaler will get hard as the crowd sucks down those one-buck PBRs.