Why MySpace Music Won't Succeed

Rupert Murdoch's pride and joy is trying to go legit; mayhem may ensue, and success may not

The overwhelming data that the company has at its disposal—who likes what, what songs fans use most in their profiles, how active a band's fans are—is drooled over by social scientists and A&R reps alike. That information is the brand's most valuable product—and yet they're competing in an increasingly crowded MP3-store field when they've got this arena practically to themselves. "Does MySpace realize how many bands it has on the site? Why not treat them like the consumer?" asks Hyatt. (For the record: Five million, and no one knows.) These days, bands are tethered to MySpace more tightly than personal users—a captive audience one can easily imagine charging $10 a month for a service that actively cultivates new fans most likely to love the band's music. Or to get updates as to what strategies other, quickly growing bands are using. In short, things those other websites aren't doing, because they can't.

A little creativity could benefit fans as well. "I do think MySpace could still be a contender if they maximize the whole music experience—helping people find, sample, acquire, and enjoy music, rather than just these acquisition-and-enjoy phases that iTunes/Apple helps with," says James L. McQuivey, a media-technology analyst and vice president at Forrester Research. Setting up just another store is easy, which is why it's been done for years. The music 2.0 websites that have been thriving—your Pandoras, last.fm's, iLikes, and Imeems—use recommendations as a way to offer their users more music to get attached to, more reasons to stay on. Where the hype is, Michael Stipe will follow: R.E.M. chose iLike to stream Accelerate early this year.

Meanwhile, MySpace has already dealt its new venture a severe blow: To distinguish itself from Friendster, it decided not to delete fake profiles as a way to woo bands. But not checking IDs at the door is also the quickest way to get shut down, and soon scads of hackers and phishers started spamming other accounts, which is how I briefly became an unwitting Macy's spokesperson. Even Alicia Keys's profile wasn't safe: In November 2007, visitors to her page were prompted to install a false codec in order to view her latest video, thereby downloading a virus.

Alicia Keys, MySpace victim
Thierry LeGoues
Alicia Keys, MySpace victim

Add to that the MySpace sub-industry of number inflation. Bands today can pay "bots" to artificially boost the play counts of songs posted to their accounts—some of those rogue agents, like the now-defunct TuneBoomPro, claim to have worked with major labels. Anyone can access a friend-adder (i.e., an Internet connection) and get 1,000 new buddies overnight. The realistically paranoid might say that MySpace Music's sales numbers could be just as accurate; any chance they'd self-bot? There've been new security upgrades (MySpace boasted, like a reformed chronic masturbator, of less porn since last September), but much of the damage had already been done. How many legitimate stores where people feel comfortable handing over sensitive financial information have begun as websites where 14-year-olds post "Thanx 4 the add!!" graphics to Miley Cyrus's page?

Success in the social-networking world may resemble a rollicking bar, but turning that triumph into a prim, proper, equally successful online shopping site is a different beast. "I don't know how iTunes-toppling MySpace's potential might be," says Andrew Dubber, a media strategist for New Music Strategies. "No matter how well it integrates purchasing, it doesn't do what iTunes and Amazon are very good at, and that's the activity of shopping." Amazon.com, a reasonably trustworthy powerhouse, entered the business of selling DRM-free digital downloads last year; as of April, it had claimed an 11 percent share of the market for digital downloads, second only to iTunes. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Amazon is partnering with MySpace Music, since the company's never been averse to competing against itself, helpfully listing the same items for sale at a lower cost from other vendors. If Amazon wants a finger in every non-iTunes slice of the music-download pie, it seems naïve to imagine that a less-trusted website would be able to successfully overtake it.

Besides, there's nothing stopping a band from building its own, more profitable social-networking center—just ask 50 Cent. One-quarter of KylieKonnect users have bought something off Kylie Minogue's site. But if you need to check out a few free songs from some random band you've never heard of, there's still no substitute for visiting MySpace—and no way for Murdoch's company to monetize its most valuable asset.

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